An Exploration of Highlands, Scotland – Part 1

17 06 2007

9-17 June 2007

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8


Highlands is a vast area of Scotland, mountainous, rugged and almost inhabitable. It is therefore not surprising to find it sparsely populated. There are not very many industries here. I would expect that most that exist operate on a small scale to fulfil local needs. Being so far up north, winters are long and cold. Being mountainous, it rains often. While none of these may appeal to the general tourist, there is something about the Highlands that attracts people far and wide. The same mountains with their rugged slopes and lofty peaks tempt walkers, climbers and all manner of outdoor enthusiasts. The frequent rains that bless these northern landscapes contribute to the many lakes, rivers and mountain streams. Population may be low but this comes with a charm associated with a certain remoteness and unaltered natural beauty. This is the fame of the Highlands that brings tourists in great numbers. In fact, enjoyment of these Highlands is not limited to the hardy and the adventurous. They can be enjoyed from the road or from popular viewpoints which are often marked on most reputable maps. A combination of rugged terrains and remote locations necessitate long drives. For those dependent on public transport, infrequent connections imply long waits. Nonetheless, each form of travel will generate a different experience. Each of those experiences will be worth something on its own. It is for the traveller to choose what’s best for him.

Exploration of Highlands, as I am inclined to call it, is less adventurous than it sounds. Exploration in its true sense can only be done by explorers in places as yet unexplored. Let us be honest. Britain is a small place. It has a tremendous history. It is no longer possible to find places that one can explore in the true sense. There are no undiscovered places that remain. There is no wilderness in the real sense. Every mile and inch of the country has be visited and mapped. Countless paths cut through virtually every corner of the country. Here one does not find the possible explorations of the untrodden regions of the Antarctic, the deepest blues of the Pacific or the alien craters on moon or Mars.

Yet exploration is possible in another sense of the word. Each one looks at the world a little differently. Each one has his own thoughts and moods. With these, the individual explores inner emotions and relationships. He questions of love and life. He seeks answers. His thought process is perhaps philosophical. Perhaps he does not even think but imbibes an experience that speaks for itself. All of nature is inspirational and each of us is inspired in our own ways. Yet the inspiration of nature means little, if we do not seek to openly explore.

In the Highlands there are scenes that cannot be had anywhere else in Britain. I have come to sample a little of it. Faced with such a vast area, with proclaimed beauty in every nook and cranny, I had to choose carefully. This choice was to sample the best of the best while attempting to make the most of available time. In addition, I had to consider the constraint of accessibility by public transport. It is not my purpose or ambition to visit every part of these Highlands or Britain for that matter. A representative sample, as a statistician would put it, would suffice. But travel is not statistics. Experience is not a number game, a matter of quantitative analysis based on averages and extremes. A single experience may make or break a holiday no matter how the rest of it turned out. This single experience can be something that lasts a whole day or something that touches the soul for one short moment. This single experience can be something that hits us even before we have reached the destination or something that comes to us in a dream that mirrors the day’s travel experiences. Travel is one of those pursuits where we keep moving in search of a new experience. We keep searching to find that special moment meant to change our lives for the better and for good. We don’t make this search in a conscious manner. It happens almost out of instinct. It happens out of an unspoken realisation that we are incomplete, happiness is temporary and life is slipping from us every second.

So I have chosen a representative sample as a means to experience Highlands. The hope is that there may be at least one experience that may prove the worth of this weeklong trip. It is left for my mind to interpret what I see and to my soul to respond. Let every sample count. Each one must be an experience. Essentially, the elements of beauty may be many but truth is one. That truth comes from how we see and receive this beauty. If I cannot experience this truth from the chosen sample, I may perhaps never experience it; but failure will not stop me from searching. With every step, I hope to be closer to the truth. On the other hand, if I do experience the truth from the chosen sample, I will certainly not need to see any more of it.


I had imagined Highlands to be quite remote and rural. I had not expected to find much at Inverness, save a sizeable town centre. To my surprise I found that Inverness is a city of some size. On approach, I passed many industries, warehouses and showrooms. On arrival, the bus stop was packed. There was a general rush everywhere. At the ticket counter, a long queue snaked well beyond the limits of what the building could contain. I soon found out that people had arrived at Inverness to attend an annual rock concert, named “Rock Ness”. This was only the second year running. It was to take place over two days while last year it had been a day’s event. More than thirty thousand people were expected to attend. Buses plied regularly from Inverness to the concert venue which I was told was about 8 miles away. In this crowd I witnessed the worst of civic behaviour.

Inverness is well-positioned at the northern end of the Great Glen, and along the banks of the river Ness. It is therefore a good base for exploring Highlands. It is one of those cities chosen as a European Millennium City. It is a city with much historic interest, having once been the centre of Pictish rule. It is close to the famous battle site of Culloden. It is a growing city. In fact, it has developed and expanded to an extent that there are named townships that make up Inverness as a whole – Dalneigh, Drummond, Lochardil, Hilton, Crown, Raigmore…

Victorian Market in Inverness

Victorian Market in Inverness

I had a few important items to purchase at Inverness. I had only six hours before moving on to the mountains, the glens and the lochs. I bought a bottle of iodine solution which would be needed to purify water. I bought a canister of cooking gas and some tortilla wraps. I had brought the rest of what I needed from Luton. Then I stopped at the Tourist Information Centre for some advice. Here I picked up a leaflet to guide me on a historic trail of the city. The leaflet introduced little nuggets of the city’s history through some of its notable buildings. Among these, the Victorian Market captivated me, not by what it sold but by its Victorian air. Long arcades with high ceilings are lined with little shops. Each of these shops is framed above by semi-circular arches that link one pillar to the next. Clear glass windows at a level above the shops light up the arcade. Warm lights housed in perhaps Victorian lampshades add a period touch. In this manner, that arcade is lit partly by natural light and partly by electric lamps. The roof is supported by arching iron supports which reminded me of Coalport, Ironbridge and the great engineering achievements of the Victorian Age. Part of the magic in this market is that despite modern age goods and services, if we let time slow down, if we pause at times on our walk through the market; we may begin to think we are in another age.

Laburnums by the flowing river

Laburnums by the flowing river

I crossed the river by a footbridge and walked through the pleasant residential quarters that make up Dalneigh. This led me to the Caledonian Canal which I followed south till I reached a long-distance path known as the Great Glen Way. I followed this path across Ness Islands till I reached the city centre. These islands are bridged to the banks of the river for pedestrians and cyclists. In this short walk, I discovered that Inverness is a beautiful city. If the mountains call out with their wild beauties, the parks and gardens of the city whisper with their cultivated beauties. Among these, I found beauty in yellow blossoms of laburnum. Luxuriant tresses of laburnum dangled from their branches, blowing gently in the breeze. Some of them dropped so low that there caressed the surface of the river Ness as it flowed past swiftly. The great beauty of wisterias that I had praised so highly only a few weeks ago was missing. Then the laburnums had not even made their appearance. Every season has a queen and at the same time, a princess unseen and unsung.

Finally, I stopped at an exhibition of digital photographs that celebrated the landscape and culture of Highlands. About 800 pictures were on display. These were as thumbnails on the wall. Each picture had a number and a bar code. By scanning this bar code, the picture was enlarged and projected on to the opposite wall. Details of the picture were also projected on an adjacent wall. Visitors were also encouraged to leave their audio comments, which were replayed when the picture was projected. This exhibition proved to be a good starting point in my exploration. I got introduced to the breadth and beauty of the landscape. More importantly, the use of technology brought a new level of interaction and experience to this unique exhibition.

Such a Long Journey

It’s a small world, we say. Yet it has taken me almost twenty-four hours to get to my destination! I haven’t travelled around the world. I haven’t even left the British Isles. All I have achieved is to get out of Luton to arrive at a remote part of the Highlands. This place is so remote that getting here is in itself a grand achievement. It is remarkable that a place as remote as this should be served by public transport. The bus service may be infrequent. It may run only a few days in an entire week. Why, in this case, there are only a handful of buses in a week. Still, it is remarkable that a bus service should exist to a place this remote. I am tempted to add that where there is a road in Britain, there is likely to be a bus service.

This long journey is worth mentioning. I left Luton at about 2230 hours on Friday night by a National Express coach. Actually, I live in Leagrave which is one train station from Luton. Because I was late in packing my stuff, I took a taxi from Leagrave to Luton. The National Express coach dropped me at the well-known Milton Keynes Coachway at about 2300 hours. To my surprise, I found the familiar and welcoming cafe gone. Upon enquiry, I learnt that it had burnt down. Everything I had recorded about this cafe on an earlier trip to the Lake District was now a valuable piece of history. The connecting coach to Inverness picked me up at quarter past midnight. It was a long ride during which I managed a reasonably good sleep, though not a continuous one. I arrived at Inverness at midday. I wandered around Inverness without much interest. I had come to the Highlands purely for hiking. I had no keen interest in museums, galleries or cathedrals. At half five, I got my next bus from Inverness to Dundonnell. It is a village I never saw. I got off the bus at Corrie Hallie, a mile before Dundonnell. The long series of bus journeys ended at Corrie Hallie which I reached at 1900 hours. The journey did not end here. Corrie Hallie became the start of a low-level mountain walk into the heart of the mountains. My final destination was a medium-sized hut known as Shenavall Bothy. This I reached at 2230 hours.

I cooked and ate my dinner outside the bothy. A light breeze kept the midges at bay and there weren’t many of them around. The mountains reddened with the setting sun and touched high the cloudless skies. Once the sun had set behind the broad sweep of the valley to the west, I returned to the bothy. I spread my ground-sheet on some old wooden floor boards. I unfurled my sleeping bag and lay down for a much needed rest. I had come to the remotest part of Britain. For the next three days, I will be completely cut-off from civilisation. I had come to live in the company of mountains and mountains alone. I had come to a place known as the Great Wilderness.

Part1 | Part2 | Part3 | Part4 | Part5 | Part6 | Part7 | Part8




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