No matter what, these two days are going to be emotionally intense. The first day, we’re going into Cairngorms National Park, and if my crying over mountains already is any indicator, that’s going to be a lot. The second day, we’re headed into Wester Ross, which is where my haunted house book takes place, so I’m going to be absolutely buzzing with research vibes.
Day four: May 22
Culloden, Clava Cairns, Fort George, Nairn, Lochindorb, Cairngorms National Park
Here is a real life sentence that I uttered out loud today: “It’s a bit chilly out, but that’s nothing a walk through Culloden Battlefield won’t solve.” Like, what even is my life right now?
Admittedly, I am really feeling the three days of intense walking in my body right now. It’s about 9:30PM as I’m drafting this part of the post, and everything pretty much hurts. My shins were feeling the worst of it this morning, so I did some fast fifteen minute yoga to stretch out my hips and hamstrings, which I definitely should be doing every day anyway. But now, as I’m sitting in bed, my achilles and knees are hurting. I want nothing more than some ice and a massage. And I’m not trying to complain about the absolutely stunning day I had by being all bleh about the walking, it’s just that my body isn’t used to this amount of mileage in this form of exercise, and it’s wearing on me. Plus, I’m doing a lot of long bouts of sitting followed by long bouts of walking, as just sort of happens with being in a tour bus. Gosh, and don’t even get me started on the absolutely gnarly bruise I’m developing from the seat buckle pressing into my hip.
Anywho! That’s not what we’re here to talk about. Although, I guess it is because it’s part of travel.
We started today at Culloden Battlefield. I walked through the museum first, which was having lighting issues, and the cashier at the front said, “We’re calling it atmospheric lighting,” which I thought was a delightful way to turn it around. The museum was quick, but there were two immersive pieces that were really interesting. The first was a walk through a blank hallway with the noise of what it would have sounded like the night before the battle–rainfall, fire crackling, birds rustling, men whispering to each other. The second was a big square room that had wall-size screens on all four sides that were playing a reenactment of the battle, but the view was different from all four sides; thus, one was the British, one was the Highlanders, one was really narrowed in on a few Highlanders and what it would have sounded like for them, and one was narrowed in on the sort of soldiers held back on the British side, like those playing the bagpipes. It certainly set a very somber mood as we stepped out onto the battlefield.
There were a couple routes available around the battlefield, but I wanted to try to walk the full mile around, and we had forty minutes available to us, so I set off. I didn’t know, at the outset, that it was only a mile because one of the signs advertised it as a 35-minute walk, so I was definitely walking a lot faster than I needed to. Even still, it definitely got rid of that chilly feeling that I was having, and I was sweating before long.
It was honestly a very peaceful walk. Our bus got there well before any other tours, so we mostly had the battlefield to ourselves, and I was alone for pretty much the entire forty minutes. All I had were birds singing, the wind whistling by, and a quick sigh over how they’d had to cordon off the Clan Fraser sign. I really do wish Outlander fans would treat the actual historical monuments with more grace and respect.
But, speaking of Clan Fraser! Our next stop was the Clava Cairns, where one of the standing stones was used as the inspiration for Craigh na Dun in Outlander. I’ve watched two of the seasons, and while it was definitely a plus to be seeing this, I was in no way searching for this as part of my itinerary. I 100% put things like the Jacobite Steam Train and Glencoe in my itinerary for fandom reasons, but, although I set my hands on Claire’s rock, I was more excited about the rocks and the trees.
I’ve always been a big “look at that rock!” person, so I spent most of my twenty minutes here just wandering around setting my hands against as many rocks as I could simply to tell them that they were magical, and I was grateful to be in their presence. I did also hug several trees, as you’ll see below, and I also absolutely had a little bit of a gentle cry over how beautiful this country is. The Clava Cairns was such a peaceful place that I could absolutely see myself coming to on a regular basis–we’re pretending I’ve already moved to Scotland–with a book and a picnic just to listen to the birdsong and the wind through the trees. I was brought to such a level of unlooked for joy that I was very sad to leave at the end.
A bit before lunch, we went to Fort George, which is the only currently active fort in–Scotland? England? I can’t remember this fact. I will say that, although the fort was really interesting to walk through, I also did not need 90 minutes, especially because we got there at 11:30AM, and I wanted lunch at noon, not to be walking around a fort. It was a little strange, too, to be a tourist walking through an active military base because there were just soldiers all over the place, either running drills or going about their business, and I get that it’s a historical place, but it still felt odd to be walking alongside them in my pastel lime green pants while they’re just trying to do their job.
I enjoyed walking around the upper levels where the sea was visible, and I spent most of my time there on Facetime with my mom & dad so they could see the dolphins jumping through Murray Firth. I also spent a while trying to understand how the North Sea becomes the Loch Ness because the first is saltwater and the second is freshwater, and there’s a Firth and a Bay in between the two that somehow act as that conduit? I really don’t know how that science works, and I know I could look it up, but it’s nearly bedtime, and I want to get the rest of my thoughts down.
I’m jumping a little ahead of the pictures, but the most notable part about Fort George for me was the sheer number of daisies, buttercups, and dandelions that were all over the fields. In such a war-forward place, it was odd to see such beauty.
After Fort George, we went down to Nairn for lunch. There was a sweet old British couple on my tour, who, when we both went into MNM’s cafe, asked me to come sit with them so I wouldn’t be sitting alone. It was so lovely, and I’m so grateful to them for that kindness. Traveling alone is something I’ve chosen to do, and I’m going to keep doing it, but it’s really wonderful to meet people from all around the world on the tours, and to be able to occasionally sit with those people and just exist in a space where I’m not by myself since I have so much of that alone time constantly. And hey, as someone who really loves being alone, that’s saying a lot that I enjoy other’s company on purpose.
After the cafe, I went to Sprinkles for ice cream, as is apparently becoming my lunchtime tradition in Scotland. I’ve also been getting two flavors every time, which I definitely want to continue on, and I got pink grapefruit sorbet and vanilla honeycomb today. It probably should have been a strange combination, but it was an absolute delight together.
I had 45 minutes after lunch, so I decided to walk down to the beach, which was about 10 minutes away from where our bus would be picking us up. This was honestly such a trip because the combination of the dunes plus the soft sand plus the ocean brought me straight back to Good Harbor in Gloucester, and I had a real moment of amazement that I could be somewhere so far and yet feel like I was in such a familiar place. The mountains on the other side of Murray Firth certainly helped to remind me that I was in Scotland, but I had such a lovely fifteen minutes just sitting in the sand and pretending I was at home.
Okay, what comes next is me having probably one of the most soul-filling and overwhelming experiences of this trip. Our guide was hella skilled with the bus, so she took us off the main highway and onto a sort of back road, single track, highly sketchy road that went down into the mountains and eventually landed at Lochindorb. There’s a castle sitting on an island in the middle of Lochindorb, and I won’t get into the history behind it because it’s a bit political and controversial, but Big Mood.
Seeing the ruins of a castle in the middle of a loch in the middle of a mountain was already a bit surreal, but there was no way I was ever going to be able to expect what came next. We carried on along this winding road, which eventually left the loch behind and headed into the mountains proper. And I just–the only time I can think of ever having seen a road like this is in the movies. It didn’t look like it should have been there, either because humans should not have disturbed something so majestic, or just because it didn’t feel real. I wonder if I can find a Youtube video of it.
Okay, I have just done some serious digging. Here’s the thing. I found a video that kind of captures it, but I don’t think it’s the right road. I’m pretty sure we were driving south down the B907, but everywhere else talks about the A939 or the Snow Roads, and when I Google mapped those and looked at the street view, they just weren’t quite right. However, I did find a YouTube of someone going through the Snow Roads that kind of captures the majesty of what I experienced.
I’m really having trouble putting into words what driving through the Cairngorms was like. I felt so small, not in a bad way, but like I was being embraced by a giant that had been waiting for me to come home, and they were so happy to finally see me. It felt like waking up for the first time in a long time. It felt like just learning how to breathe properly, and not realizing I’d been doing it wrong before. It felt like arriving home after years and years away. There was something ancient in these mountains that pulled at the tide inside my soul and said, “Stay here.”
Every second that I spend more in this country, I realize that I’m meant to be here. I felt like, if we had stopped to take pictures on the B907, that I would have undoubtedly run from the bus and straight into the valley of the mountains never to be seen again. I didn’t know how to continue being a person while witnessing them. They were so otherworldly and so magnificent, and it just didn’t feel like something I was supposed to see with my naked eyes. Like I was looking upon gods, and I wasn’t meant to. It was so overwhelming, and I know this sounds like nonsense, but I really do feel changed by having driven through those roads and been allowed the gift of their presence.
I also really feel like I need to rent a car and drive through it on my own so I can experience it properly because my goodness, once was nowhere near enough.
As you can see, though, that wasn’t the end of the day. We had a quick Highland cow break, and this was the closest I’ve gotten to one yet. The other people on my tour were making me hella nervous with how close they kept standing near the cows, especially their horns, but they didn’t try to reach in and pat them, thankfully. We also paused briefly at the site of some ice-smoothed rocks that are remnants of the last Ice Age, and our guide told us to “go stand on them and think about how young you are.”
We ended the day with a spiraling drive up into the Cairngorms to one of the tourist viewpoints, where we were able to get out and walk around a bit. I really wish we’d been able to do this while driving on the B907, and I’m a bit mad at myself for not having spoken up, but being able to see them from this vantage point was incredible, too. They really do look like they come from another world, and I just can’t imagine what the mountains are going to look like tomorrow.
Every day has been wildly different from the last, and every direction I go in the Highlands leads to a vastly differently environment. I only have one full day left, and then it’s off to the Isle of Skye, where I’m sure to see incredible scenes, as well. Until then, though, it’s late, and I’m very tired, and I can’t wait to sleep.
Day five: May 23
Kinlochewe, Torridon, Shieldaig, Applecross, Eilean Donan Castle
What a day. Today was both one of the most relaxing days I’ve had so far, and one of the most life changing. It feels like those two things shouldn’t go hand-in-hand, but the way this trip is going, that honestly makes sense to me. The more I feel myself shifting and changing, the more stress I find myself shedding. Scotland really is, well and truly, bringing out the best version of me. Though that certainly wasn’t noticeable this morning.
I left my Airbnb without even bothering to check my phone. I’ve been with Timberbush Tours all week, so I headed up to the Railway Terrace, where we’ve been meeting for the last three days, and I hung out there until about 8:20AM–I was due to be picked up at 8:30AM–when I got a call asking me where I was. I checked my phone, and wouldn’t you know, I was with Rabbie’s Tours today, and though they were meeting across the river at the cathedral, which was way closer to my Airbnb, I was a solid 15 minutes away. Goodness, but I’ve never hoofed it so fast.
Thankfully, my tour guide today, Kev, was absolutely brilliant, and he waited an extra five minutes while I went careening over the bridge, and he was so lovely when I was finally able to get off the bus for a bathroom break and let him know why I’d been late.
Today was all about mountains. Our first stop was a viewpoint looking down on Kinlochewe, which was really just about looking around at the upcoming Torridon Mountains. I really thought the Cairngorms was going to be what knocked me off my feet, but my goodness, bury me in Applecross. (We’ll get there, hold your horses.)
Kinlochewe was such a lovely start because it showed us right away what we were in here for, and, even then, I still wasn’t quite prepared for the magnificent beauty of the Torridons. We had a quick break in Shieldaig, where we took a long, winding road through the mountains and down into the sweet lochside village. I got the most delicious banana cake with ginger icing from Nanny’s, and when I eventually make my way back to Torridon, I’ll be stopping there again.
And then, it was off to the mountains proper!
I feel like we need a little backstory here. In September ’21, I texted my friend and said, “I am so sick of everyone. Well, everyone except the new characters I dreamt up last night.” A bare few hours later, I texted her again to say, “Irvine Drummond, who everyone just calls by his last name, and who hates his name, is my usual Aries chaos monster, the one who gathers everyone together and keeps a psycho journal of notes and research that’s falling apart. He’s Scottish, and I think this will eventually take place in the Highlands?” It was the very first moment that Drummond came into my brain, and, much like Freddie Wright and Landon Ash, who I woke up one morning with fully formed in my brain, Drummond demanded my attention. With barely a plot scraped together and none of the magic figured out, I started writing, and I really would like to believe that I would have gotten further if my writing hadn’t all but fallen apart for the entirety of 2022 only to resurface with a vengeance in 2023 in the form of my vampire story, but alas, here we are in 2023 with Thornwood Manor still unwritten.
However, I knew that I was going to Scotland in 2023, and I can definitely say, with confidence, that probably 95% of that was just because I’ve always wanted to go, 5% was also for Drummond. Today’s tour, however? 100% because I wanted to go to Wester Ross. When I was originally creating Drummond’s story, I knew that I wanted it to take place in the Highlands, and I wanted it to be somewhere remote and hard to get to, so I started digging into the different areas of the Highlands. And I’d just like to share the same paragraph that I shared on my Instagram because it absolutely baffles me that I wrote this almost two years ago, well before I’d even kind of considered what my Scotland itinerary would look like:
The horizon was golden when Irvine paused at the height of the pass through the mountains, thumbs curled around the straps of his backpack and head tilted up to take in the view of the towering peaks around him. The draw of Thornwood was strong now, the magic dug deep into its stone roots singing through the valley, but Irvine let himself enjoy the mountains first. Though he was born and raised in Inverness, where mountains thundered overhead like unimaginable giants, he’d been in America for a year, and he never tired of the sight of the Scottish beasts that held his heart so firmly. America had mountains, many of them akin to the ones that could be found in Scotland, but they weren’t this monstrous and wondrous all at once. There was almost something otherworldly about them, and he couldn’t fathom a life lived without them always in his future.
I knew. I knew exactly how these mountains were going to effect me, and I put it into one of my characters almost two years ago, and it just astounds me that I knew. I understood, before I even got here, what this country was going to mean to me. Because I absolutely spent another day crying over mountains today, and it was so wonderful to be able to drive through the Torridon Mountains and know that I’d gotten it right, that Thornwood absolutely should have been set in Wester Ross.
And don’t even get me started on Applecross. My gosh, but the moment that we came down through the Torridon Mountains and into Applecross, I knew that this was where I needed to end up someday, that, when I was finally able to return to Scotland, it would be to this stunning place.
We had lunch at the Walled Garden in Applecross, which was just lovely. Eating in Scotland as a vegetarian has been surprisingly easy, when compared with Portugal, and that’s definitely another part of this trip that has taken away a whole heck ton of stress for me. Even as we were walking down the floral drenched trellis through the Cottage Garden, I knew that lunch was going to be a no-brainer, even without seeing the menu.
They had small plates for a solid portion of their menu, and I really appreciated the little guide at the top that said 3-4 small plates per person recommended. I ended up with a wild mushroom risotto, balsamic beetroot and roasted cauliflower, tomato soup, and a pile of roasted veggies. All of it was delicious, but the beetroot & cauliflower definitely held center stage. It was surprisingly spicy and flavorful, and I can’t wait to go back there once I live in Applecross.
We were all booked in at the same restaurant, so I ended up sitting with a lovely Canadian couple and our tour guide. The woman noticed my Harry shirt and said that she was going to see him on Saturday, so what a surprise that was! We talked a lot about Lord of the Rings and Outlander, and the restaurant just had such a soft, gentle atmosphere that really set the tone for the rest of the day.
It rained while we were eating, though it stopped right when we’d finished, and there’s a whole garden around the restaurant, so I packed up my things and went to walk through the flowers. The smell was incredible, especially after the rain, and I could have sat in the Cottage Garden for hours with a book and some tea.
(Side bar: why does nowhere in Scotland sell good tea? Why is it all Twinnings? I know I’m going to get hate mail for this, but I just don’t understand. I thought the UK was a tea place? Why is everything in bags? Twinnings Earl Grey is awful.)
After lunch, we went back up into the Torridon Mountains, and it was nothing short of magical. With the rain had come fog and lower clouds, so, although we were driving up into the mountains and literally through the tops of them, we couldn’t see much. That didn’t make it any less wonderful, though, because our tour guide started playing the perfect sort of Scottish music to go along with the drive, and, as we started to come back down out of the clouds, the world just opened up. We were able to see the Hebrides Isles in the distance and the massive mountains drawing down into valleys, and it just did not feel real. The more I see of Scotland, the more I think this is a very long, well plotted, very realistic dream that I’ve been having. It’s honestly too good to be true.
The Torridon Mountains are unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I really don’t know how I’m meant to walk away from them. I want to stay here for the rest of my life, just soaking in the beauty of their size and history. The Torridons are among the oldest mountains in the world, and that is so starkly visible.
Our last stop of the day was Eilean Donan Castle, and I really wasn’t feeling walking around a castle when I could be looking out at the Isle of Skye in the distance and breathing in the cold air surrounding the mountains. Thus, though I’ve got a bunch of pictures of the outside of the castle, I didn’t take the tour inside, nor did I even cross the bridge. Which might feel like I’m missing out, but I really have just found so much peace and joy in walking through the mountains that being caught inside of another castle is so far from anything that I want to do right now. And I know I’ve already said this sentiment, but it was never more apparent than at the end of today, when I’d rather just sit and stare at the mountains across the loch than even consider going into the castle.
Still, Eilean Donan Castle looks like a postcard when you’re sitting there in front of it. I Facetimed my mom, and all of her work friends were shouting about how it looked like a painting when I turned the camera for them. Scotland really is just one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I don’t think these pictures do them any justice because you really have to be there, in person, to understand how truly majestic this country is.
And that is a wrap on my last day (for now) in the Highlands! We took another quick stop at Loch Ness on our way back into Inverness, and though I’m said to be leaving the Highlands behind, I’m also really excited to be heading out to the Isle of Skye. I have a three hour train ride to the Kyle of Lochalsh followed by an hour long bus ride into Portree, where I’ll be staying until the Harry concert, and though I do definitely think that I should have just stayed in Inverness for all of it, and I’m bummed to be leaving my very cozy Airbnb, I am ready to see a new place. The lesson of staying in less places was well-learned from Portugal, and I will certainly be carrying that out as I continue to travel.
For now, though, I won’t be back in the Highlands until Sunday, so I’ll hold onto their beauty in my heart until then.
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