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Sparkling Edinburgh and the Isle of Skye
Scotland’s Lowland and Highland Gems Shine Brightly

"Many a marauding army tried to take this topping fortress!" exclaimed the retired sergeant leading us through the walled maze of Edinburgh Castle. "But it was never captured!" He drew himself up proudly, as if he had personally manned the battlements. We felt the tongue-in-cheek pride that we’d experienced throughout Scotland. Only a few minutes earlier we had passed the entrance statues of William Wallace and Robert Bruce who resoundingly defeated the English in the early 1300s. While Scotland has long been part of Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales), it has successfully maintained its uniqueness and independent spirit.

With one-third of England’s area but only five million residents, Scotland offers a perfect balance of natural wonders and friendly people. My wife and I had chosen late September to tour Scotland by auto. The countryside gleamed and the days were pleasantly warm. We saw an unforgettable circle of sites, but two locales glittered brightest — bonny Edinburgh and the Isle of Skye.

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Kilted guide, Edinburgh Castle

Scotland’s Showpiece — Edinburgh Castle

The town’s crown, both physically and historically, Edinburgh Castle sits high above on a dominating rock. We started our visit from the stone gates, climbing a long, steep stone ramp that wound ever upwards, past numerous walls and buildings. We quickly realized just how grand and forbidding the castle must have appeared in medieval times. At the top of the grounds we visited the oldest surviving castle structure, St. Margaret’s Chapel, built in 1130 in the Romanesque style and holding but 25 people. From the chapel we caught an inspiring view of the entire city, as well as the daily cannon salute. We next visited the Royal Palace with the Crown Jewels and the Mary Queen of Scots room, where Mary gave birth to James VI of Scotland, later King James I of England. In the Palace we also enjoyed a visit to the Great Hall, the royal ceremonial meeting place with its medieval hammer-beam roof and the iron-barred spying hole above the fireplace that enabled suspicious kings to eavesdrop on their unsuspecting guests.

Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Casttle

The Great Hall
The Great Hall

The Royal Mile, New Town, and Other Delights

Leading downhill from the castle to Holyrood Palace, the Royal Mile was the route used by Scottish royalty to pass between the castle fortress and their preferred Holyrood residence. Today the Royal Mile is an explorer’s delight. It’s packed with shops, churches (kirks), historical merchant residences, and narrow side alleys (closes) and squares. We made a number of stops along the Mile: Witches Fountain, where 300 suspected witches were burned in medieval times; Gladstone’s Land, a 16th century merchant’s home; Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, named after the Edinburgh man who inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; St. Giles Cathedral where John Knox, father of Scottish Presbyterianism, preached in the 1500s; and Tron Kirk, a medieval church now housing an interesting Old Town history display. Of course, we had to make a few stops at shops and eateries along the way, as Edinburgh’s Royal Mile sported an ideal balance of history and commercial bustle.

The Royal Mile
The Royal Mile


Gaelic Folk Music
Scottish Folk Dancing

Edinburgh’s famed New Town, dating from the 1700s, is a short distance north from the Royal Mile. This district is laid out in the Georgian style, broad streets lined with white-colonnade residences, like Sibbet House B&B where we stayed on Northumberland Street, a short walk from the town center. The selection of nearby restaurants, such as Keepers and Wintergreen, provided an excellent choice of meals. Quaint Dean Village, a preserved 800-year-old mill community along the banks of the River Leith, also provided an interesting nearby excursion. At night Edinburgh served up a great sampling of music-filled taverns near the Royal Mile and an informal evening of Gaelic song and folk dancing, or ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee), at a Scottish culture club.

Isle of Skye sunset
Sunset over Cuillin Sound, Isle of Skye

The Entrancing Isle of Skye

Largest of the Hebrides Islands, the Isle of Skye holds an incredible array of natural wonders. Skye wove its aura of enchantment upon us as we drove the single-lane roads with views of the jagged Cuillin Hills, rugged seashores, crofting villages, and sheep-filled moors. We stayed on the southern Sleat Peninsula, known as the Garden of Sleat, at the Duisdale Hotel, a converted hunting lodge overlooking the Sound of Sleat.

One evening after dinner we took a 12-mile drive around the peninsula. With the exception of a few scattered sheep, we literally had the track to ourselves. The highlight of the drive was the crofting village of Tarskavaig with sunset views over Cuillin Sound. Tarskavaig is typical of dozens of the isle’s crofting communities dating to when Scotland’s clan system was dominant. It consisted of a scattering of homes and surrounding acreage which the Gaelic-speaking farmers rent and work together, sharing their labor and its output for their livelihood.

Biking and Boating in the Shadow of Cuillin Hills

One morning we rented mountain bikes in the town of Broadmoor and pedaled across the island, past moorlands filled with small lochs and herds of sheep. The Red Cuillin Hills, huge, bare, pink volcanic mountains, looked down on us from across the moor. The Celtic crosses at a roadside cemetery etched themselves into our minds. From time to time we rang our bike bells to clear the road of unfenced sheep. As the road climbed gradually through a grove of cypress we arrived at the crofting village of Torrin and looked out over a beautiful bay to the waters of Cuillin Sound. That afternoon we drove to the small fishing village of Elgol and took the Bella Jane tour boat across Loch Scavaig to visit a colony of harbor seals. Then we debarked and climbed up the side of a cascading waterfall to hauntingly beautiful Loch Coruisk, sitting in a glacial valley below the Black Cuillin Hills, jagged, black, volcanic crags, towering 3,000 feet above. We then understood why the Red and Black Cuillin Hills have been touted as the United Kingdom’s most impressive peaks. A Golden Eagle circled slowly and the sun warmed us as we took in the scene from the banks of the loch.

Sheep own the road

Celtic cross
Celtic cross

Loch Coruisk
Loch Coruisk and Cuillin Hills

The Trotternish Peninsula

A 40-mile drive around the far northeastern Trotternish Peninsula provided another day of interesting explorations. Starting at the picturesque town of Portree, overlooking the Sound of Raasay, we browsed its craft shops for Skye’s renowned Celtic jewelry. Then we ventured north on a single-lane track leading past the Old Man of Storr, a natural stone pinnacle standing 160 feet into the sky. We stopped to picnic at Kilt Rock’s and viewed the majestic cliffs plunging 600 feet into the sea. There were many stops along the drive for walks with rugged coastline views, fortress ruins, and small villages, like Culnaknock, Staffin, and Ulg. The Skye Museum of Island Life also lured us to stop and explore its living depiction of the crofting community lifestyle of the 19th century.

Kilt Rocks
Kilt Rocks

Crofting Museum
Courtesy: Skye Museum of Island Life

The Perfect Circle

The Isle of Skye is but 100 miles, as the crow flies, northwest of Edinburgh. However, in a country with narrow roads skirting mountains, the sea and numerous lochs, the auto trip was not a short one. We had arranged our trip to focus on these two special locations, but our visit afforded the perfect opportunity to make a circle of Scotland which left us with many other fond memories: the Scotch distillery in the western port town of Oban; renowned Loch Ness with its castles and wooded hills where everyone still keeps an eye out for the famous monster; the fortresses and ruins of Hadrian’s Wall at Scotland’s border, the far northern reach of the Roman Empire; the Gothic abbey ruins of beautiful Melrose, Sir Walter Scott’s home village. Our memories of Scotland continue to shine brightly.

Click here for details to plan your own trip to Scotland.

Les Furnanz
Photos by Rita Furnanz

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