“The Scottish sun, shocked by having its usual cloudy underpinnings stripped away, shone feverishly, embarrassed by its nakedness.”
When I was nine or ten, my parents started receiving travel magazines in the mail. They were full of glossy pictures of faraway places, turquoise oceans and stucco houses with blue roofs, rolling green hills dotted with sheep, so unlike my neighborhood in Queens. I read them, studied the pictures and cut them up for collages. I collaged everything: paper, recycled containers, turning jelly jars into costume jewelry holders. I couldn’t save all of those pictures, but even as an adult, some images are as vivid as they were then.
There was one in particular of turquoise waters surrounded by white cliffs and purple evergreen trees. I know now that it was edited, but then, it was magic. They were fairy pools, which made the whole thing even more intriguing. I was old enough to know that fairies weren’t real, but there must have been something magical about the place to warrant such a name. I knew then that someday I’d visit the Isle of Skye. Someday.
In June, we stumbled upon the opportunity to visit Scotland and that childhood seed lingered. We had one week to see Scotland and the possibilities were endless. Should we stay in Edinburgh and see one city or head for the Highlands? Or the other islands, or Glasgow. Fife. Which coast?
For the first time in my traveling life, I asked Twitter. Within hours, I had hundreds of suggestions. I tallied them up, making special note of anything mentioned more than once and plotted them all on a map. Within hours, our route was clear.
We had two days in Edinburgh and spent more time in “nature” than doing city things, like the Water of Leigh Walkway. The whole thing is punctuated by listening spots where you can learn more about the history of the area. We passed tiny villages, old mills, hidden cemeteries. There’s an abundance of bird life along the walk. It was a fun way to mix nature into our city visit.
The image above are the ruins of the Holyrood Abbey, established in 1128 by King David I. We hiked through Holyrood Park, snagging ourselves on thick patches of yellow flowering gorse before untangling our way to the Sheep Heid Inn on the other side, built in 1360.
The Isle of Skye
Just before the bridge to the Isle of Skye, there’s a small castle. The Eilean Donan Castle was built in the thirteenth century and possibly named for an Irish saint, Bishop Donan, who once had a small corps of followers on the island. The castle is considerably smaller than it once was when it served as a defensive post and even played a role in the Jacobite rebellion.
Just over the Bridge of Skye, we saw our first rainbow. It was one of the few times the sun pushed through the clouds on this trip, and a warm welcome to the island.
We stayed at Skye Eco Bells . With only three tents on site, it felt like we were the only ones there. The owners thought of everything: fresh eggs in the morning, eco-friendly soaps, hot bottles to warm our feet on cold nights, tea light lanterns. We made campfires and waited for the sun to fully set long after midnight, and fell asleep to wind rushing through the meadow.
The Old Man of Storr: Created by a landslide, the Old Man of Storr is a popular tourist destination on the island. It’s less than a two and half mile hike to the actual rock itself, but the steep up and down made it feel significantly longer. Actually, most of Scotland’s hilly terrain made even an “easy” walk challenging.
The Quiraing: No matter where you are in this four mile loop, it’s breathtaking. The sun comes and goes as it pleases, but there was something especially magical about the Quiraing in the mist.
We stumbled on these unmarked ruins by chance behind the Dunvegan Castle, home of the MacLeods and the oldest continuously inhabited castle in Scotland. It was a perfect “sunset” spot, filled with Queen Anne’s Lace, Stinging Nettle, and a host of other wildflowers we didn’t recognize.
The Fairy Pools: There weren’t any turquoise pools rimmed with white cliffs and purple evergreens, but the real Fairy Pools are pretty spectacular without Photoshop. The trail to the pools continues on after the most touristy spots and winds around an unmarked bog. Bog hiking ranged from regular grass under our boots to swampy sinkholes. It was a slow, muddy experience, following sheep trails back to our start place.
Neist Point: The trail to this 1909 lighthouse is impressively steep. The foghorn above is no longer in use, and yet, I kept hoping it would summon a whale. Watching the ocean from the lighthouse was beautiful.
Coral Beach: Made of crushed white coral, the water is sky blue when the sun is shining. Getting to this beach was almost as fun as actually exploring it. We walked through a farm, tip-toeing past a herd of cows and a sign threatening anyone who bothered them. Then we walked along the coast. It’s a popular spot, but we were there late in the evening and the beach was empty. We picked through seaweed and shells, finding a treasure trove of tiny coral fragments.
Teacups in a tiny cafe.
Fairy Glenn: Tiny stone circles, fallen trees with roots still in the ground continuing to grow. To really do Fairy Glenn justice, it should be done on foot. Then you can wander through the hills and stone circles and ferns that make this place so unique.
There was one late afternoon when we were driving along the coast between the horizon and the sky when we stumbled on the ruins of an old farm house. The house, which had recently been excavated, was built below the land’s surface. There was a small front door down a mud path and a sign telling visitors it was ok to enter. The town had even left a pair of puddle booths and a flashlight for wading through the ankle-deep mud. Just beyond the main house was a smaller dwelling, used for storing food.
We saw so much on this trip, but it was this spot where Scotland’s history felt most alive, hidden and excavated by residents with their own unique connection to the same land. We felt truly welcomed, we strangers from across an ocean, trusted to walk through a project so carefully labored over and cherished by neighbors, and yet we were trusted to preserve the work they’d done without admission tickets or a customer service rep to greet us. I’ve worked in museums where history is preserved behind climate controlled cases, meant to be observed and learned from in the context of florescent lights and information signs. But here, stepped right into this buried home and look at the same sky through the same window its residents once did under a sun that never set and rarely shined.
This post is long overdue. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out just what to say about Scotland. It’s hard to put such a place and experience into words. I knew it had to be special from the tremendous response my first crowd-sourcing attempt generated. So many people were eager to share their favorite parts of Scotland, and though we didn’t have time to see everything recommended to us, I want to sincerely thank everyone who shared with us. Sifting through so many recommendations and pictures from other people’s journeys only made us that much more excited to embark on our own.