A chill north wind blows across a landscape, stark but beautiful at the same time. But a peat fire is always nearby in some stone cottage with a thatched roof, where both the occupants and the ambiance are warm (and so, sometimes, is the beer; this is Britain, after all!). The sounds of the breeze are occasionally broken by the “baaah-ing” of a group of sheep.
The landscape rises and drops sharply in steep hills and angular cliffs, where the heather seems to be waving to the ocean below, where old men walk the ragged shores, and where younger men set out in tiny boats to catch that night’s dinner.
The calls of circling shorebirds echo against the sounds of the waves, and carry through the damp mists. Here, the cottages are few and far apart, and the tiny villages look much as they did centuries ago.
From somewhere in the distance, the plaintiff wail of the bagpipes evokes images of the ancient Celtic culture still alive here, and of old wars and young heroes and a lifestyle left behind by the rest of Scotland, but still happily embraced here.
You’re in the northwest of Scotland, offshore from the storied Highlands, traversing the Inner and Outer Hebrides islands. And you’re traversing them in the style of the ancients…by foot. For here, in this place of misty moors, weather-beaten fortress walls, legendary lochs, and even more legendary folk heroes are some of the best walking lands in Britain. Footsteps bring this land to life – and all the spirits and echoes and traditions within it – in ways that cars or buses simply cannot.
Walking the Hebrides is like being taken back through time, as life here isn’t a whole lot different from the way it was hundreds of years ago (with slight variations, such as cars and electricity). On a walk around the Hebrides, you can experience the historic essence of Scotland. You can touch, you can see, and you can feel, from the damp, fragrant earth to the frequent misty rains to the warm fires by the hearth, from the distant lilt of bagpipes to the traditional ways that are not only still followed, but also still honored. And a company called English Lakeland Ramblers – based in the very un-English town of Montclair, Virginia, USA – can take you there on guided walks that will give you an intimate insight into these lands and the people who inhabit them. You can choose walks through the Inner and Outer Hebrides, or through the Scottish Highlands (or both). Whatever walks you choose, the layers of this ancient land of Scotland will be peeled off in fascinating ways.
In the Highlands, scene of so many legends and so much triumph and tragedy, you’ll “ramble” up majestic Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. In Moidart, a remote and wild region, you’ll retrace the route of Bonnie Prince Charlie after he landed in Scotland and declared himself king. Along the way, you’ll gain insight into the centuries-long conflict between Scotland and England, from the Middle Ages up to the 1700s.
You’ll explore the dramatic stone face of Eilean Donan Castle, one of the most enduring images of Scotland for visitors and one of the most beloved for Scots. This is the ancestral home of the McKenzie Clan, and the walls seem to echo with intrigue and history and the colorful personalities who once lived here. You’ll see the striking rock features of Quiraing, formed by lava from ancient eruptions that shook the earth, and the panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. And you’ll walk in the footsteps of the ancients at Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of the Chiefs of MacLeod. This structure is the oldest continuously-inhabited castle in Scotland.
This particular route also takes in the prehistoric stone monument known as the Standing Stones of Callanish. You’ll take a boat across Loch Roag (no monsters in this loch, but plenty of legends!) to the island of Great Bernera. Here you’ll find an old village straight out of a history book (and some locals who look like they may be, too). And you’ll walk the ancient mountain footpath connecting the tiny villages of Rhenigadal and Urgha, on the Isle of Harris.
Two nights are spent on the Isle of Skye, where you’ll get a chance to browse the colorful shops of Portree, the largest town on the island. You’ll also see the Fairy Pools, a series of pools and waterfalls formed by the Allt Coir’ a’ Mhadaidh stream flowing down from the mountains. (As you’ve no doubt noticed by now, many of the place-names are in Gaelic. Your tongue will get quite a workout trying to pronounce them.)
Three nights are spent on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. You’ll walk among the prehistoric ruins here, accompanied by a vigorous wind sweeping o’er the isle. As you walk among these relics of a long-ago age, you’ll find yourself wondering who they were, how they lived, and why they left.
On your trip through the Highlands and the Hebrides, you’ll walk along isolated – and humanless – sandy beaches caressed by foamy salt-water breezes that send waves of spray into your face, and overlooked by heather-filled cliffs and wildflower-filled meadows. You’ll walk along seldom-traveled paths through the Highlands, past foreboding castles and cloud-shadowed mountains and mysterious lochs (lakes)…possibly even Loch Ness, where the monster “Nessie” may – or may not – lurk under the dark waters. And you’ll do so with the knowledge that a comfortable bed and good food await at the end of each day’s walk. (Walks generally cover 4-7 miles daily, with one 10-miler. And elevation gains are a relatively modest 400’ to 1500.’)
In the evenings, you’ll relax in comfortable, distinctive inns and hotels offering a cozy Scottish ambiance, warm Scottish Scotch, and excellent local food and game. All of these charming inns are set in beautiful countryside, and all are convenient to country lanes where you’ll see nature at its most colorful and the locals at their most friendly.
Scotland’s a feast for the senses…all of the senses. You’ll touch, feel, taste, see, hear, and smell things you’ve never touched, felt, tasted, seen, or heard before. And on these walks through the Highlands and Hebrides – two of the world’s most dramatic, compelling, starkly-beautiful landscapes – your senses will be in for a “moveable feast” that will stay with you forever.
(All Photos Courtesy English Lakeland Ramblers)