Scotland - National Geographic Expeditions

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Scotland: Land of Legends

Explore the treasures of Scotland and discover its rich history, fascinating landmarks and spectacular landscapes that come straight from Middle-earth.
April 3, 2020

In misty hollows and on desolate mountain slopes, from the cobblestoned streets of Edinburgh to pastel cottages on the Isle of Skye, Scotland’s ancient history imbues its landscape with layers of myth and meaning. On a trip to the Highlands and islands, travellers will encounter remnants of Neolithic ring forts and hear tales of Pictish warriors who once roamed the impenetrable Caledonian pinewoods, putting fear into the hearts of invading Roman soldiers. Gaelic clans and opportunistic Vikings clashed for centuries on the beaches and hillsides, raising castles and routing armies, until conflicts with the English crown eclipsed all other rivalries. Heroic battles won and lost, monarchs lauded and loathed, fairies appeased and monsters imagined—such stories burst from Scotland’s seams, waiting to intrigue and enchant every visitor.

Many visitors begin their journey in Edinburgh, the seat of the Scottish Parliament and a cosmopolitan gateway to the Highlands. Wander down narrow medieval streets and admire neat Georgian townhouses in the historic neighbourhoods of Auld Reekie, so-called for the clouds of smoke that once covered this centre of Scottish industry. Today it is sometimes called the “Athens of the north,” a cultural capital and haven for intellectuals, philosophers, and artists, from poet Robert “Rabbie” Burns to famed author J. K. Rowling.

North of Edinburgh lies the rolling moors and forbidding peaks of the Highlands, one of the last strongholds of Gaelic language and culture in Great Britain. Today, only 1% of the population report the ability to speak Gaelic, with efforts underway to preserve and promote this ancient tongue among newer generations. In this spectacular landscape, standing stones tower over barren peat bogs, castle spires soar above sparkling lochs, and ancient clan seats preside over lush fields grazed by hairy Highland cows. Hikers brave wind and rain to scale green mountainsides, afterwards taking shelter by the fire in cosy pubs and warming up with a dram of famed malt whisky.

Soon it’s over the sea to Skye, the largest and northernmost island in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, an otherworldly realm of jagged peaks, misty forest glades, and sweeping beaches. Red deer and golden eagles inhabit steep valleys in the imposing Cuillin Hills, while travellers can take in breathtaking views from the sheer cliffs of the Quiraing. Around the island, iconic whitewashed houses overlook calm harbours and rolling green hills, and locals gather in the pub on windy evenings to recount tales of brave heroines and heroes, mysterious happenings, and fascinating history.

Dunkeld Cathedral

The village of Dunkeld is nestled among the green peaks of the Grampian Mountains, close to the Highland Boundary Fault, which marks the geological boundary between Scotland’s Highlands and Lowlands. The majestic Dunkeld Cathedral was founded in 1260 and mixes elements of Gothic and Norman architecture. It once housed precious relics of St. Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland almost 1,500 years ago. Despite standing partially in ruins, the cathedral remains in active use today.

Loch Ness

Cryptozoologists—those who study hidden or unknown animals attested in folklore and myth—have flocked to the shores of Scotland’s Loch Ness since the publication, in 1934, of an anonymous photograph purportedly showing the head of the famous Loch Ness monster. Yet Nessie’s legend began long before photography initiated a heyday of elaborate hoaxes. In the 6th century, St. Columba himself is said to have fended off the attack of a water beast from the depths of Loch Ness with a simple prayer.

Scotland, Loch Ness

Corrieshalloch Gorge

The stunning peaks, valleys, and lochs of the Highlands have been shaped by the slow movement of glaciers over millions of years. Step onto a Victorian-era suspension bridge to view the spectacular Corrieshalloch Gorge, eroded over eons by glacial meltwater. Marvel at the Falls of Measach, where the River Droma cascades over 150 feet into the depths of the gorge.

Uig, Isle of Skye

Ferries from the Outer Hebrides arrive daily in Uig Bay on the west coast of Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula. The name of the bay, and of the cluster of white cottages that forms the village of Uig, comes from the Old Norse word vík, meaning bay or inlet. Old Norse was the language of the seafaring Vikings—yet the word víking is not related. Víking comes from a similar word for a long journey, such as the voyages undertaken by Scandinavian men and women who brought their language and customs to Skye’s shores in the Early Middle Ages.

Kilt Rock and the Mealt Falls

So-called because of its striated basalt columns resembling pleated plaid, Kilt Rock is an extraordinary sight to behold on the Isle of Skye’s Trotternish Peninsula. From an observation point near the small township of Ellishadder, view both Kilt Rock and the roaring cascade of Mealt Falls plunging over the cliffs into the sound below.

Scotland, Kilt Rock

The Quiraing

The Quiraing is a landslip on the eastern face of the Trotternish Ridge, on Skye’s northern peninsula. This sweeping escarpment is the result of countless landslides. The Quiraing is the only part of the landslip still on the move, requiring frequent repairs to the road below. Features of this spectacular landscape, popular with hill walkers, have acquired names such as the Needle, the Table, and the Prison—a rocky peak resembling a medieval castle.

Faerie Glen

Landslips are also responsible for carving the otherworldly landscape of the Fairy Glen, located on the western side of Skye’s Trotternish Ridge. Wander freely between strange mounds and sparkling pools, but keep your wits about you—some say that fairies live among the mysterious rock formations, waiting to lure visitors away from the human world.

Eilean Donan Castle

On a small tidal island where three lochs meet, near Scotland’s western coast, stands the imposing stone keep of Eilean Donan Castle. Founded in the 13th century and used a stronghold of Clans MacKenzie and MacRae, it was later destroyed by English warships. They bombarded the castle in pursuit of a small company of Spanish supporters of the Catholic King James VII, who had taken refuge there during a Jacobite uprising in 1719. Eilean Donan was restored in the 20th century and remains one of Scotland’s most recognizable icons.

Scotland - National Geographic Expeditions

Glen Coe

A beloved destination among Scotland’s hill-walking culture, Glen Coe is a volcanic valley in the Ben Nevis and Glen Coe National Scenic Area of the Highlands. Named for the River Coe, which flows between its steep green slopes, the glen is also infamous as the site of the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe, when Jacobite rebels of Clan MacDonald were murdered by soldiers loyal to William of Orange.

Stirling Castle

Surrounded on three sides by sheer cliffs, Stirling Castle is an architectural marvel and a landmark of Scottish history. It occupies a strategic point overlooking the lowest crossing of the River Forth. One of Scotland’s most historically important castles, Scottish heroes William Wallace and Robert the Bruce both fought the English for control of Stirling Castle.


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