Whenever I am asked “What is your favorite country?”, my answer is always the Scotland, but specifically the Scottish Highlands (and Turkey, but more on that later). I had an incredibly unique experience in the Highlands, with it still being one of my favorite holidays to date. Since SO MUCH happened in this magical land, I’m splitting this into two parts, so welcome to Part One.
My number one bucket list item was to see the Northern Lights. My number one bucket list destination was the Isle of Skye. By some crazy, magical, divine intervention, I witnessed the Northern Lights while on the Isle of Skye.
It all started when I decided I wanted to do a five-day Highlands tour through this pretty cool tour company called Macbackpackers. There were a number of reasons I decided to sign up with a tour company rather than explore it on my own, and while I won’t dive into those, there are a couple of things you need to know in order to tell this story right:
- Our tour guide was born and raised in the Highlands and rarely does these tours anymore.
- The weather in Scotland for the month of March is rain. Always rain. While it’ll stop for a bit here and there, you’re lucky to get even a few consecutive days rain-free as it’s still considered winter.
- To see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), conditions need to be perfect: the sky needs to be completely clear; there needs to be a strong active storm; and you usually need to be very far north (like Iceland or Norway, for example).
- It’s nice to be nice. Remember that saying, we’ll come back to it.
- I wanted to take this tour a month ago, but due to a series of unfortunate events, I had to delay it until this particular week.
Keeping these things in mind, we start our journey not-so-bright and early Monday morning in Edinburgh. For this adventure, my cousin Bryan joined me. We climbed into the mini bus in the front seats, eager to start. We were joined by 13 others and set off through the thick fog. It was clear from the start that this group was special. Our tour guide, you’ll remember, was born and raised in the Highlands and he looked it, as he was short but stocky, piercing blue eyes, and full of a powerful history.
There’s a quote by famous Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson that describes him perfectly:
The mark of a Scot of all classes [is that] he … remembers and cherishes the memory of his forebears, good or bad; and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation.
The reason I bring this up is because we spent a lot of time in the bus driving from place to place, so Graeme told us numerous stories about the history of Scotland. Obviously, a tour company’s guide must be knowledgeable of the land and history of the country he’s in. However, while I can’t be entirely sure, we all felt that the stories he told were ones that he grew up listening to rather than fed to him by the tour company. We imagined him sitting with a grandparent as a boy, listening the stories of his heritage and his history, then sharing it with us in a voice that is low but strong, simple yet captivating.
When the haar (“haar” is a Gaelic term that refers to the thick morning fog) lifted, the sky was cloudless and the sun was brilliant, with the temperature around 65 degrees Fahrenheit (approx. 18 degrees Celsius). This brings up the second point I mentioned earlier. The weather stayed like this all week. Not once did we get rain, and in fact, it became so warm that we were out in t-shirts and shorts on occasion.
Once we were clear of Edinburgh, our tour started with a bit of history and a stop at the gorgeous Hermitage. We continued the trip up to the famous Loch Ness, where we had the chance to jump in and swim with Nessy.
Out of the 15 of us on tour, only myself and two Aussies, Tom and Laura, decided to take the plunge into the icy cold loch (“loch” is Gaelic for “lake”). Because I love J.K. Rowling so much and we’re in the country where she wrote her Harry Potter novels, I’m going to use her line and amend it to this: There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and swimming in the lake of legends is one of them. We all bonded very quickly after that experience.
Oh, we also recorded the swim, where afterwards I exclaimed, “We just went swimming in the Loch Ness Monster!” and my cousin Bryan was quick to point out that we did, in fact, NOT swim in the monster. Way to ruin dreams, BRYAN.
We ended the day exploring a bit of Inverness and chose a traditional pub called Hootenanny to eat dinner, where a couple of Scots were having a session playing their accordion and violin. This older gentlemen joined in later with his violin and it turned into a proper sesh. The younger guys did not know the older man, but welcomed him to play with them as long as he wanted. Live music is one of my absolute favorite things, so this was something I immensely enjoyed.
Day Two started bright and early, as our destination for the day would be the Isle of Skye. It started with a bit of history and a visit to Clava Cairns, circular rock formations the ancient Scots built to tell time. We made a stop at the battleground where the Battle of Culloden took place. Many Highlander rebels lost their lives fighting for Scotland and Bonnie Prince Charlie, and this battle marked the end of the Jacobite rebellion.
It’s important to note that there’s a clear distinction between the Highlanders and the Lowlanders. The history of Scotland is fascinating, which is another reason why I love this country so much. Their story is my favorite, and I encourage you to read into it. You’ll have a newfound respect for these incredible people.
We made it to the Isle of Skye later that night, where the lot of us made dinner for each other and relaxed with drinks.
Day Three involved the famous fairy pools. We went there in the morning before any other tourists would arrive, and spent our time exploring the various pools, waterfalls and overall splendor of this miniature dreamland. After that, we went for a drive around the isle, where at one point it was very Middle Earth looking. We traveled up to one of the highest points on the island where as soon as we stopped, I sprinted out of the bus and frolicked across the field, ran up the hill, and just sat and looked over the mountains and the lochs and the town below.
When we got back to the hostel, my friends Kelly, Rhi and I opted to grab some drinks and climb up the castle that overlooks Portree, our home in Skye. We watched the sunset on the ruins of an ancient castle, but what came next is a moment I will never forget.
Stay tuned for Part Two…
*Photos by Michael Mastrandrea, a fellow tour member. Thanks, Mike!