EDINBURGH, Dec 10 — We leave Edinburgh while dawn is slowly painting the city still wrapped in shadows with a golden glow. Why so early? A road trip to the Scottish highlands beckons us and best we start first thing in the morning.
What will we discover? The old Scottish saying “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye!” reminds us what will be, will be. Let’s drive and see. And a little over half an hour later, we find ourselves at Queensferry where sailboats are still docked. Queensferry where her three bridges stretch across the Firth of Forth.
The most recent bridge, the Queensferry Crossing, was opened just this August and is the longest three-tower, cable-stayed bridge in the world. The second, the Forth Road Bridge, was the longest span suspension bridge outside the United States when it opened in 1964 over half a century earlier.
Yet our eyes — and those of every visitor to this quaint seaside town (or firth-side, as it is on the banks of the estuary rather than the North Sea directly) — rest upon the oldest bridge of them all: the Forth Bridge.
A cantilever railway bridge across the Firth of Forth, this iconic red bridge is not only a Unesco World Heritage Site but was voted Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder. The entirety of its 2,467-metre length was designed by English engineers Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker in the 1880s. For us, it’s the gateway to the Scottish highlands from Edinburgh.
After crossing the Firth of Forth, we take another hour to reach St Andrews, a historical town on the east coast of Fife. Besides the ruins of St Andrews Castle and St Andrews Cathedral (named, as you might have guessed, after Saint Andrew the Apostle), the town is notable for three things.
Firstly, St Andrews is known as “The Home of Golf” with its Royal and Ancient Golf Club, founded in 1754; its seven golf courses making it the biggest public golf site in Europe; and its golf links, with beautiful sandy beaches, being the most famous venue for The Open Championship, the oldest golf competition in the world. One can imagine P.G. Wodehouse putting on the grass here.
Secondly, the town is home to the University of St Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland and ranked as the third best in the United Kingdom, after Oxbridge. And it’s this illustrious university that is where the future Duke and Duchess of Cambridge met while studying here from 2001 till 2005.
Yes, Prince William and Catherine Middleton are the town’s third claim to fame, and possibly the only reason some folks have even heard of St Andrews. Signs of their then blossoming romance are all over: here the picturesque St Salvator’s Quadrangle overlooks the hall where Wills and Kate had rooms during their first year; there the café (North Point) where Wills and Kate met for coffee.
Everywhere we walk we can’t help but ponder if the royal couple had walked by too, just a decade ago. Maybe Wills checked the time by the clock tower of the St Andrews Chapel to make sure he wasn’t late for his date with Kate.
Might they have promised to meet beneath the Kelpie Maquettes, the sculptures of the Scottish mythological water horses? (Unlikely: these three-metre-high models by Scottish sculptor Andy Scott were only installed earlier this summer...)
These elegant, silver-flashing equine statues are beautiful, of course, and we can imagine the shape-shifting water spirits they pay homage to. But we can’t help but compare them with a far louder and campier sculpture we saw earlier, in
Queensferry, depicting the notorious Loch Ness Monster in a riot of colours. More fun, that one. More like the friendly Scots we’ve met along the way.
Another hour and half of driving and we arrive at Stonehaven, on the north-east coast of Scotland. Here the ruins of a medieval fortress sit like a Gothic sentry, watching over the ever-rolling waves of the sea. Dunnottar Castle is called “the fort on the shelving slope” (or Dùn Fhoithear in Scottish Gaelic) and indeed the surviving structures look like they could slide down onto the seaweed strewn beaches and into the waters; all it’d take is one particularly violent storm.
Yet the castle — or what remains of it — persists. It lies on ancient highland rock formed 440 million years ago. Vikings attacked in the 9th century. The castle guarded the Honours of Scotland (the Scottish crown jewels) from Oliver Cromwell’s army in the 17th century and was part of the failed Jacobite risings in the 18th century. We stand still, in awe and surrounded by living history.
We continue our journey, our little highland road trip. Outside the windows, a flurry of mauve and violet. Highland heather adorns the fields and the hills, a real life watercolour painting. Rain starts to fall, and just as quickly, peters off. Weather is unpredictable here.
It is late afternoon when we finally reach the Cairngorms. Mountains and rivers, lochs and forests — the Cairngorms National Park is the very heart of the Scottish highlands. In fact, five of the United Kingdom’s six highest mountains are located within its boundaries so hikers and rock-climbers come here during summer, skiers during winter.
But it has been a long day already. So we stop at Loch Morlich, Scotland’s only fresh water beach found right in the middle of the Cairngorms. It’s slightly disconcerting to see the sun hitting the surface of the loch and the sandy bay that circles it. We remove our shoes and sink our toes into the grains of sand.
We see young families at play. We see a couple of yachts. Mother duck leads her brood of inquisitive ducklings into the reeds. The not-too-distant peaks of the Cairngorms watches over all of us. And when we turn to leave, to return to our car, we can just imagine the mountains and the loch whispering “Haste ye back!” Farewell and come back soon.