Wow. It's the one word to sum up the extreme beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Never have we encountered such dramatic sweeping vistas - lush green hills rolling into the sea backed by craggy, snow-capped peaks and landscapes reflected in perfectly still waters. We passed time on the train predicting what natural stunner would come next - rushing waterfall, grazing sheep, lichen-covered stone wall, sunning deer - we sighed in relief every time we would pass through a tunnel and give our senses a chance to recover.
Scotland nearly missed our itinerary, but something pulled me in that direction. And thankfully we obliged. We arrived in Fort William late at night from Glasgow, and grabbed the only taxi waiting at the station. Pam, the host at our B&B, stayed up to let us in, warm light glowing from her front atrium welcoming us as we pulled into the drive. It was pitch black in the night and the rain kept us moving too quickly to see anything. She'd given us the front, loch-view room in the house, though morning seemed so long to wait for what we knew was just outside our window.
Pam's property, Ardlinnhe Bed and Breakfast, has but three rooms, all simply and tastefully decorated, with the most wonderful bed we've found to date in the UK. A feature we've really grown to love in all UK inns is the in-room coffee and tea service. Especially in the damp, chilling winter, a cup of hot tea before bed is a soothing ritual that takes the hard, cold edge off a long day of fighting wind and rain to sightsee. Pam's service includes a wonderful oat biscuit that is delicious dunked. We pop in Rob Roy from her local film collection and settle in for a restful night.
Sunrise, of course, is later where we are and we're downstairs at breakfast before it's fully in the sky. Meals are served in the atrium overlooking Loch Linnhe, and we devour fruit, porridge, black pudding, local sausages, bacon, mushrooms, toast and poached eggs - delightful! We're quickly off and moving, just one day to explore as much of the area as possible, and no time to waste.
Out the house, we both beeline for the water's edge, across the street, down the sidewalk and landing in massive springy piles of seaweed washed up on the shore. We walk as far as we can go along the shoreline, then turn uphill to discover downtown.
Fort William's high street is enchanting - a cobblestone street with white lights strung across from building to building. Many of the shops and restaurants along the way are closed for the season, but most the storefronts are inhabited - a welcome repreieve from Glasgow's many empty ones. There are at least a half dozen outdoor stores in the mile-long strip we wandered, all seemingly a bustle with activity.
We pass through the town-centre and head for the hills. Ben Nevis is just out of sight from where we are, and we are eager to have a glimpse of the tallest peak in the UK. There's a street that breaks off from the main road and follows a river up into the Nevis Range. We follow it, wandering slowly higher into the hills and watching the swollen river rush by, headed for the sea. Finally the street turns more into a path and traffic dies down.
We spent hours trekking roughly eight miles around the range, over the river, along its banks, through fields of grazing sheep and down a one lane country road, only heading back when the rain and cold gets a little too much to bear any more.
Scotland has what they call their Outdoor Access Code that really makes hiking like this possible. The goal of the code is to preserve and protect land for the shared enjoyment of everyone; Our favorite part is that there is no land considered private in Scotland, and as long as you leave the gate you enter through as you find it (open or closed), you are free to pass through on your way. It's a pretty amazing concept if you consider it. For more info and to read the code for yourself, visit the official site.
The following day we boarded the West Highland Line bound for Mallaig, a journey we heard to be one of the most scenic in all the world. We were floored when the scenery started, and barely scraped ourselves off the floor when we pulled into town at the end of the run. The images below, though taken through dirty train windows, speak for themselves.
And then there was Mallaig. We pulled into port, climbed the hill to drop our bags with Heather at Ashdale Bed and Breakfast, and set off to explore the tiny fishing village before sundown. As if we needed to punctuate our already burning love for the country, Mallaig iced the cake with its colorful fishing boats, isle silhouettes, slow sunsets and a ridiculous number of rainbows nearly everywhere we looked.
The unexpected delight in Mallaig was the food. We happened into a pub for a pint as we were early for dinner, but in need of a sit. We suspected the food may be worth coming back for as the Liqueur Coffee was a showstopper. Espresso, Drambuie and a double cream float have never lived in such harmony as in the glass the owner placed on the bar in front of me.
Danny was a fast friend when he taught us how to properly consume the beverage and took our spoon away to keep us from stirring. "The trick," he said, "is to sip the coffee through the cream so you get the delicate cream first, then the strong coffee taste." Four tries, a facefull of cream and some good laughs later we mastered the sip and promised ourselves we will one day have this recipe on our menu (serving sans spoon to make Danny proud, of course).
A few sobering hours later, we were back at the Chlachain Inn for supper and ravenous. We ordered the Venison Casoulet and Fish and Chips for mains, starting with a bowl of French Onion soup and one of a local favorite, Cullen Skink. The latter is quite like a New England Clam Chowder with an added layer of smokiness from the freshly smoked haddock. Amazing. The Cullen Skink and the Venison were the stars of the show, though the other dishes certainly not lacking in flavor. We stuffed outselves silly, vowed our return and headed for bed.
Boarding the train to finally leave Scotland was a bittersweet morning. In just eight days, we'd seen so much, but only scratched the surface and are pretty sure we'll be making a return trip in the warmer months. We missed Inverness, Isle of Skye, fly fishing, the distilleries, owe Glasgow another chance, need to camp under the stars on the banks of a loch, want a long weekend at Dalhousie Castle - the list goes on and on.
The full span of the West Highland Line from Mallaig down to Glasgow takes roughly four hours, and those last four hours were much like the rest of our time in Scotland - we passed through four different seasons and countless magical terrains, spotted another dozen magestic Red Stag and counted waterfalls and rainbows. This is a truly, truly special place.