The Scottish Highlands

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Recently our family went back to bonnie Scotland with one goal in mind – to explore the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, one of the most famous landscapes in the world (oh yeah, and the hubs wanted some Scotch too). For years I have soaked up literature, t.v. shows and films set in the Highlands. The mountains and hills, lush riverbanks, and endless lochs create a ruggedness, mystique, and yet a delicate beauty. Imagine a tale of faeries in a wood, medieval soldiers fighting hand to hand in a steep valley, a mountainside trek for survival, or heck, even a unicorn in a hidden glen, and any or all of these scenes could take place there. In our family, we’re heavily in favor of back roads and we saw our fair share in the Highlands; every one seemed to slice across acres of expansive farms and livestock (an endless chorus of: sheep! cows! horses! sheep! tractor!), small but busy villages of locals going about their day, and then wind through dense, dark pine forests, like a bad omen in any cautionary tale.

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The scenery was truly stunning, and it was only made moodier by the (almost constant) rain and low clouds. As the River Spey rose and raged, spilling over its banks, the landscape became increasingly saturated in every meaning of the word. Fields turned into a patchwork of greens and hedgerows burned bright with the yellowest gorse. It was breathtaking. Thankfully. Because did I mention rain? Yeah, it rained a lot.

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We stayed in a small town called Nethy Bridge on the bank of the River Nethy, a tributary of the River Spey. Our B&B backed up to the river, only hidden by a small wood, and as the rain came down the river grew louder. One night we left the window cracked – the sound like the crashing waves from an ocean-side balcony.  While we were reassured that we were staying in one of the driest micro-climates in Scotland – in the Cairngorms National Park – the forecast said otherwise, so for day 1 we went for an indoor activity: touring the Glenlivet Whisky Distillery.

It turns out toddlers are not readily welcome in distilleries. Who would have thought?? We had planned on putting him in the carrier and all taking the tour together – he’d be safe and contained! Nope. No “under 18s” allowed. My husband loves Glenlivet and was really looking forward to the tour so I told him to go ahead – I’d hang with the kiddo. Puddle jumping it is! For an hour. In the Scottish rain. After a minor tantrum (the toddler, not me). But hey, that’s how memories are made, right? 🙂

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After the tour we didn’t want to call it a day yet, despite the weather. The rain was steady but not too hard so we donned our waterproofs and set out on a walk. A nice thing about the great British pastime of walking is that in places like this there are endless possibilities – small walking trails connecting villages, footpaths cutting through fields and farms, and more established trail heads are everywhere. You can bust out your Ordinance Survey map and traverse the whole country if you’d like. Or, you can be like us and drive until the area looks especially pretty and you see a “public footpath” sign by a gate and then pull over and park. It turned out to be a beautiful, soggy and squishy walk along a wide grassy clearing and then through a thick, lichen-covered birch forest. Like much of the highlands, it was quiet, serene and felt strangely magical and wild. Later that day we saw a majestic white horse in a field and it seriously could have been a unicorn with a spell-hidden horn. We all thought it. That’s part of the charm of the Highlands.

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The next day called for rain in the afternoon so we thought we’d gamble and try an outdoor activity in the morning. Opting for something slightly more kid-friendly than a distillery, we visited the Highland Folk Museum. The open-air museum boasts free entry, over a mile of outdoor space, and over 30 historical buildings to tour, dating from the 1700s to the 1960s. One area is set up as a 1930-40s village, complete with a schoolhouse, candy shop, post office, homes and a working farm. It was fascinating for us and for the kiddo, although he was a little too eager to pet the ducks and chickens. Plus, there were TRACTORS. Super exciting.

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My favorite part was the 1700s village, rebuilt using traditional methods where a similar township once stood.  (Scenes from the HBO show Outlander were filmed there!) Something about the dark clouds hovering over the thatched roofs, surrounded by rolling hills (and a strange amount of ducks) made it easy to picture them huddled around the fire sharing a meal or going about their work on the same hill hundreds of years ago… Until a fellow tourist with a thick brogue piped up and asked, “But did they even have ducks back then?”

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With a bit of whisky and culture under our belts, we had one more goal.  The hubs was insistent: “I want to climb a mountain.”  While I didn’t want to be a spoilsport, I did remind him we were travelling with a toddler, so he might need to temper his expectations a bit. Regardless, we found a mountain and got hiking! The clouds looked ominous, but the forecast said we had a few hours to go until rain, so off we went to the Glenmore Forrest Park, in the Cairngorm Mountains. Their website nicely summarizes the path we took:

“For a real work out, you can hike up Meall a’ Bhuchaille – the hill of the shepherd – straight from Glenmore Visitor Centre. The path doesn’t stop climbing all the way to the top at 2600 ft. (810 metres), but the views are superb.”

The views were superb, and no that path sure did not stop climbing. Ouch. The rain held off for most of the hike and we were able to see clearly from the top – no obscuring clouds, thankfully! And may I add, my stud of a husband did the entire hike with a 25 lb. toddler on his back. Swoon. He even came to the rescue with songs from Frozen when our little guy was ready for a nap but we still had an entire mountain to go down. He finally started to drift to sleep in the carrier right as the visitor centre came into view and the rain started to come down. Silly, sweet memories.

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But what a beautiful, calming, varied place the Highlands are. As we took our time driving down endless back roads, soaking it all in, my husband and I agreed, “Yep, we could live here.”

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