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The Scottish Highlands (for Sissies)

Posted By Guylaine Spencer, Sunday, February 1, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Fort William in the Scottish Highlands bills itself as The Outdoor Capital of the UK, but you don't need to be as fit as an Olympic athlete and carry a tent on your back in order to enjoy some of the world's most famous mountain scenery. If you're not a hiker, you an still explore this region at your ease by car or public transportation.

Fort William

My visit started with a train ride from Glasgow to Fort William via the storied West Highland Line. For three and a half hours we chugged through the lashing rain past vast loch-filled moors populated only by sheep and hairy cows. I sipped hot chocolate and watched streams coursing down mossy green hills wrapped in mist that looked like candy floss. The trip took a little longer than advertised, making an incredible twenty stops along the way, but with a view like that, I wasn’t complaining.

The scenery grew wilder and the peaks higher the further north we climbed, and when I finally disembarked at Fort William and lugged my suitcase uphill to the Bank St. Hotel (why are budget hotels always located UP-hill?), I found that I could see the mountain range from my window. Many hikers come to Fort William just to climb nearby Ben Nevis, which at 4400 feet is Britain's highest mountain. The circumference at the base is 24 miles, which gives you some idea of the size of this monster.

The population of this tourist-friendly town is around 10,000. The main shopping district consists of a few streets running parallel to the lakeshore and about a dozen crossing those. High Street is pedestrian-only with a wide choice of restaurants, pubs and stores. One of the charity shops caught my eye. As the clerk kindly explained to me, PDSA’s profits provide free veterinarian care to pets of qualified owners who can’t afford the full fees, like elderly people on small pensions or people with disabilities.

What a great idea, I thought, and how fitting for a nation that seems to adore its pets, including the famous Scottish terriers that you see everywhere.

Two flower-filled parks book-end the centre of Fort William. One of them faces a marina, offering a bit of public access to Loch Linnhe, which is blocked for a good stretch by an ugly highway. There’s also another small access area where the ferry and boat tour companies have their piers.

I took one of the Crannog boat tours based on their brochures promise of a visit to Seal Island. Being from Canada, I imagined a colony with thousands of animals, so I was amused to learn that "seal colony” in Scotland means a rock about the size of my living room with a half-a-dozen seals lounging about like customers at a pub. Still, it was fun to be out on the lake enjoying the glowering Ben Nevis, fighting the stiff wind’s effort to yank me by my hair up into the sky.

On another day I visited the West Highland Museum. This old-fashioned treasure trove was created back in the 1920s by volunteers, and from the look of the displays and signage, it hasn't been changed since. The quirky collection includes Jacobite memorabilia, fancy dresses from long-buried belles, Highland tartans and a "birching table" (a curious apparatus of corporal punishment). I remarked to the museum guide on duty how happy I was to see a museum that hadn't been sanitized and modernized to the point of blandness; the loquacious lady agreed and lamented the "dumbing down” of museums these days. "Museums used to be for all ages," she said, "But today their only purpose is to entertain the children..."

That evening, just outside of the museum, I got a chance to see some of the town's children, or its young adolescents at least, entertaining the adults on bag-pipes and drums. Dressed in blue tartan kilts, they made a pleasing picture as they led the tourists through the streets in a curious reverse of the piped piper tale. The hotels and pubs in town also offer live music several days a week.


Feeling pretty much at home now in Fort William, I set out to explore the rest of the Highlands through day trips. At first I was reluctant to visit Glencoe because so much emphasis in the travel guides is placed on its status as the site of the 1692 massacre, and I’m uncomfortable with "tragedy tourism”. However, photographs of the mountains lured me and I’m glad I went. I took a bus to Glencoe Junction then a taxi to Glencoe Visitor Centre. The centre focuses on the region's geology, wildlife, conservation, sustainable tourism, even the thorny issue of the impact of mountaineering and camping on the environment (brought home all too clearly by the large trailer park nearby). It’s worth a short visit if only for the sight from the viewing platform out back. If you don't want to go in, though, you can wander the scenic trails around the centre for free.


The town of Inverness boasts a population of 60,000, and is the capital of the Highlands. The road from Fort William skirts the edges of steep hills and offers a variety of scenery: pretty villages, farms, wild countryside and Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness. Alas, no sightings of Nessie that day. The bus that took us to Inverness turned into a commuter service on the way home, with several passengers getting off at unmarked spots along the road and wishing the driver a good night and "see you tomorrow".

Inverness Castle was built in 1835 but sits on the site of earlier castles going back to the 11th century. You can’t go inside because it’s a sheriff’s court today but I did wander around the lovely grounds and got a grand view of the city below. Nearby are the city's art gallery and museum. Walk along the River Ness and you'll come to an ornate iron foot bridge. Stop in to buy art cards by local artists at the River Gallery. If you have a (very) sweet tooth, try the Border Cake at the River Café. For a really spoil-me-rotten lunch, the meals at the Mustard Seed Restaurant, housed in a former church built in 1823, will make you go down on your knees to give thanks.

Kyle or Lochalsh

I tried another Scottish wildlife tour one day with Seaprobe Atlantis in Kyle of Lochalsh, a small town that has grown recently due to the building of the controversial Skye Bridge. Having scaled down my expectations, I enjoyed this short boat trip, even though I could see little through the murky glass bottom of the boat besides jelly fish. The hills, islands, lighthouse and ruins seen from deck, as well as the odd seal or sea bird, were reward enough. The bus from Fort William took us past the famous Eilean Donan — one of the most filmed and photographed castles in the country.

Over the Sea to Skye

I began my journey to Skye by taking the train to Maillaig because I wanted to see the great Glenfinnan Viaduct, today more commonly known as the "Harry Potter Bridge". The view down into the valley from this surprisingly elegant concrete curve to the monument honoring Prince Charlie is nothing short of breath-taking. On the day I was there, the train stopped right on the viaduct for several moments, while we hovered, it seemed, 100 feet in the air. I tried desperately to take shots through the window, but kept getting reflective glare. To my delight, the train conductor came into the car (I was right up front) and crooked a finger at me. I followed. In the front cab an open window yawned. I poked the camera through and — voila — succeeded in capturing a memory for life.

The rest of the train trip offered more delights. At one stop, a pair of red deer stood watching the train, as if waiting to pick up incoming guests.

At another point, through the window a quick flash of silver caught my eye as we whooshed past the glimmering sands of Loch Morar beach.

The train I took to Mallaig was run by First Scot Rail. You can also ride the "Hogwarts Express" (its real name is the Jacobite Steam Locomotive), which operates summers only on a limited schedule and at roughly double the price of the regular train. As I stood in the station at Fort William one day I watched a man in an open-topped car full of coal heaving shovels full of the black rock into the engine. He was struggling to stay upright.

Despite all the nostalgia about steam trains, I bet the workers who had to feed the beasts year round weren't that sad to see them go.

Upon arrival in Maillaig I had some time to look around this gritty fishing little port before taking the ferry. It had its pretty aspects — the Tea Garden café just near the water, and the lone girl playing bag-pipes to passengers arriving by train — but its harbor is a reminder of what a real fishing port looks like before the work dries up and gentrifiers come in and turn it into a museum piece.

The Calmac ferry was a surprise. It was huge, for one thing, more like a floating apartment building than a boat, and very modern. It took less than half an hour to whisk us over the sea to Armadale.

Having only part of an afternoon, I had to limit my exploration mainly to the port and to the ruins of Armadale Castle and its gardens. A stroll through the paths of the extensive gardens is rewarding for anyone with an eye for exotic trees and a nose for fragrant blossoms.

The hills and mountains, the spectacular sea views and ancient archeological sites of Skye make the island a magnet for photographers, artists and craftspeople, many of whom are inspired to create works with Celtic motifs. As I boarded the ferry back to Maillaig, I resolved to return for a more leisurely exploration of this once-remote and still romantic Scottish island.

Practicalities in Fort William

Accommodation: The town offers range of hotels and B and Bs. I stayed at the Bank Street Lodge, which has dorm rooms and private rooms with en-suite bath, and a fully-equipped communal kitchen if you want to cook or prepare bag lunches.


Ossian’s: Serves casual meals in a high-ceilinged dining room of faded grandeur. Picture deep-set windows, chandeliers and, on the wall, framed photographs of the town from days gone by.

Hot Roast Place: Makes a hearty hot pork and apple sauce sandwich.

Guylaine Spencer is a Canadian freelance writer specializing in travel, history and the arts. She’s also the publisher of

Tags:  Fort William  Glencoe  Inverss  Ossians  Scotland  Scottish Highlands 

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