My favorite spot on Earth
We've visited many parts of Britain and Europe while living in England these past ten years. Only one place has tempted me back, again and again. And only one spot has convinced me to book the same cottage, with the same view, for a second time.
The first time we stayed in a self-catering cottage was in 2006, when we first visited Scotland. I happened to find the perfect idyll: a cottage in Foyers, on the southern side of Loch Ness. With a big picture window overlooking the loch, Coach House proved to be the perfect location for walking, and watching—scouring the ground below for red squirrels and deer, and keeping an eye out on the loch for any signs of legendary monsters.
We never saw a monster, but the loch has currents and reflections and odd patterns of waves, possibly created by the boats that cruise the shores, or possibly by underwater creatures. I try to keep an open mind.
Further afield, down narrow lanes and highways hardly deserving the name, the Scottish Highlands have much more to offer than quiet squirrel watching. This is the heart of Scottish whisky country—Speyside malts are born and bred here in the Highlands, and many distilleries offer tours and tastings. At any rate, it's a good excuse for a drive, regardless of whether you like the taste of whisky. (Don't bother to call it Scotch when you're in Scotland; everyone knows you mean the Scottish kind if you talk about whisky.)
On the other side of the loch, Urquhart Castle beckoned, almost literally—we'd see it on its spit of land as we went up to Inverness, across the loch through the trees. To get there, we had to put up with a bit of commercialism at Drumnadrochit, on the wider A82 road from Inverness, but the castle quickly dispelled us of any 21th century notions and transported us right quick to the 13th century, when defending your flank from raiders by way of a drawbridge and trebuchet was the thing to do.
Some visitors arrive at Urquhart Castle by boat
Trebuchet at Urquhart Castle
The view of Loch Ness from Urquhart Castle
But then we ventured a bit further back in time, to the Bronze Age Corrimony Cairn. Nothing was defending this pile of rocks but sheep, who scattered as we approached. So much for defense, guys.
Still, eleven standing stones encircle the cairn, where ancient burials took place. Now, it's the perfect spot for a picnic.
The entrance to Corrimony Cairn
The inside of Corrimony Cairn, where the capstone has disappeared, showing the inside of the burial mound.
Since I've been bitten by the archaeological bug (it's related to the Scottish midges) I insisted we take a trip to Orkney, north of the Scottish mainland and virtually a country unto itself. Once part of Norway, the islands of Orkney were given to Scotland as collateral when the Norwegian king married off his daughter. He never bothered to reclaim them. Now Orkney is a bit of Norway in Scotland, with self-reliant Orcadians having their own flag and calling their largest island the "Mainland" as if Scotland is simply another island.
Prehistoric ruins are everywhere in Orkney, the most famous being Skara Brae, the neolithic village on the edge of the Mainland. Skara Brae was discovered in the 1800s when a storm washed away the sand that had covered it for centuries. The settlement was small—probably no more than 50 inhabitants lived here at any one time—but they left an almost intact network of homes, surrounded by earthworks and "middens", which is what archaeologists call ancient tips. Not only were the middens a convenient place for tossing rubbish, but the layer of rubbish provided excellent insulation from the harsh cold.
Well preserved Neolithic home at Skara Brae
Reproduction of a dresser at Skara Brae
Skara Brae map
The residents of Skara Brae built their furniture out of stone, ensuring it would last long enough for archaeologists to get a proper look at it. Each home was exactly the same, with a "dresser" (in Britain, a "dresser" is a hutch, like a China cabinet in the U.S.) directly opposite the entrance and two beds on either side of the circular room, with a square hearth in the middle. Skara Brae would have been occupied from around 3100 BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the pyramids.
Next to Skara Brae is Skaill House, standing out on the desolate seaside like a concrete-hued fort. It was built in 1620 and has housed twelve lairds (lords), whose belongings are on display inside the house (included with your entrance to Skara Brae). The garden, built into the ground a meter or so, is a sad illustration of the harsh conditions on Orkney—no lush flowers typical of the English gardens here.
Skaill House, the 17th century home next to Neolithic Skara Brae
Garden at Skaill House
We also stopped at the Ring of Brodgar stone circle, not far from Skara Brae. Stone circles aren't that uncommon in Europe—around 1000 survive today. They must once have been as common as churches are today. The Brodgar stones are almost as large as the stones at Avebury, but are much slimmer.
We were told to expect a "magical feeling" once inside the circle, but all I felt was a stiff wind.
Ring of Brodgar stone circle
Ring of Brodgar
On the way back to John O'Groats from Orkney, our ferry boat tossed and turned in the choppy waters. Several passengers became ill during the hour long ride. But then, like magic, a rainbow appeared starboard, and we arrived at the port without incident.
Rainbow from the John O'Groats ferry
New York or Orkney?
One of the most beautiful drives in the Highlands has to be the road from Fort Augustus to Foyers, a highway built by General George Wade after the Jacobite rebellion in 1715. By highway, of course, I mean a single track road, with wide areas for oncoming cars to pass. Yet over the entire route, we only saw one other car as it passed while we'd stopped for photographs. We saw far more sheep, who proved to be the greater traffic hazard.
The Caledonian Canal from Fort Augustus
Views along the B862 from Fort Augustus
A glimpse of a loch along the B862
A meandering stream
Another view of a loch along the B862
Closer to "home", our cottage in Foyers was located a short walk from the Boleskine Cemetery and the Falls of Foyers, as well as the entrance to the Forest of Faraigaig. Boleskine House was once owned by rock star Jimmy Page, as well as a mysterious magician, known as the Beast of Boleskin, who reportedly dabbled in black magic.
Inverness is a 40 minute drive, despite the fact it's only 16 miles up the road. There's very little traffic—the South Loch Ness area has only 1000 inhabitants—but there are deer, and pine martens, who dash across the road unexpectedly, not to mention the odd slow camper van.
In the Forest of Faragaig
We spotted Nessie at one point, during our cruise of Loch Ness.
Did we spot Nessie? Clearly, we spotted something on the Loch during our boat tour. Or perhaps it was something on the window.
Black magic or not, there really is something enchanting about Scotland and its lochs. Maybe it's the pine-scented air, or the Speyside malts, or possibly ancient ghosts, cross at having their burial mounds disturbed. Whatever it is, Scotland is my favorite place on earth, I've decided, having sampled quite a few earthly locales.
I would go back in a heartbeat.