The plan was to come home in early October after my 90-day Schengen Region visa expired. BUT…then my friends decided to spend a few days in London and, well, I am easily persuaded to stay abroad. Since the UK hadn’t kicked me out yet, I could spend some time in the Scottish Highlands before hopping the train to London to meet up with my friends.
So, it was as my visa expired on the 90th morning of my stay in the Schengen Region that I boarded a plane from Zurich to Inverness – for the best and most unexpected add-on to a trip ever.
Following the Signs
The weather in Inverness was to be cool and rainy, a bit of a shock from the late-summer warmth of the Schengen, but perfect weather to catch up on a bit of writing while looking over the River Ness from the balcony of my rented apartment.
I was anticipating 10 very quiet days in Inverness, since I figured there wasn’t much to see. I mean, the area’s biggest attraction is a mythical creature, right?
The first few days went just as planned.
Then, one particularly rainy evening, the live music coming from behind the steamed-up windows of MacGregor’s Bar drew me inside. I listened to the guitarist mix classic rock with Scottish folk music, while I warmed up over a local brew and a bowl of soup with chicken and spiced lentils. The bartenders told me that I should come back the next evening for a special program called the Highland Malt Whisky Experience. Since, at the time, I wasn’t a whisky drinker, I just smiled and ate my soup, making no plans to attend.
But, the next afternoon, I received an email from Airbnb suggesting the whisky experience. Starting to believe it was a sign (I later learned that only one seat opened up at the last minute), I read through the rave reviews, shrugged and thought why not. I put my rain boots back on and took the bridge into town.
The reviews were not wrong. Not only did I learn that I like whisky – at least the really good stuff – I learned so much about the history of the Highlands through music and beautiful storytelling that I was inspired to take two separate day trips to explore the hills, the islands and the battlefields.
Lessons Learned Over Whisky
But back to the whisky (spelled with no “e” in Scotland).
Our first bit of whisky was a Dalwhinnie Winter which, though made in the coldest part of Scotland, has a way of warming the insides. As we sipped, that night’s host Davy Holt struck a chord in my soul with the statement that most people – including Highlanders – are unfamiliar with the history of the Highlands.
Lessons and education plans were set by London until the newly established Parliament of Scotland first met in 1999, and there just wasn’t a lot of emphasis placed on the stories of the northern hills of Scotland.
Davy spoke of the many battles throughout history in which Highlanders took the front lines. This was, in part, due to the legendary Highland Charge, which filled the hearts of opponents with fear as they faced a charging mass of clansmen who, wielding broadswords, joined their voices together in a shrill cry that echoed across the hills.
It was a fitting story to hear over a taste of The Dalmore 15, which boasts a stag as its emblem in recollection of the moment that the chief of Clan Mackenzie saved King Alexander III from a charging stag in 1263. The king granted the clan the right to use the Royal Stag on their coat of arms, a tradition that continued with each whisky bottle when descendants of the clan became owners of The Dalmore.
As fans of the book series by Diana Gabaldon (and Starz drama) Outlander know, Clan Mackenzie took part in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 that culminated in the Battle of Culloden when “Bonnie Prince Charlie” lost the fight – and ultimately his bid for the throne – to the Duke of Cumberland.
But there is so much more to the story of Culloden: The Jacobites had marched through the night and they stood exhausted on the battlefield; the Duke had positioned his men on the other side of a muddy bit of land, thereby ensuring the charging Highlanders were literally bogged down in mud; and, perhaps most lethal of all, the Duke instructed his men not to fight the man charging straight on, but rather to stab the man to the right where the sword and shield left a bit of flesh exposed.
It was a massacre. To this day, the Duke carries the nickname the “Butcher of Cumberland” for his method of ensuring no further rebellions: wounded men were sought out and killed where they lay on the battlefield, and those that lived were rounded up and systematically shot at Old High Church in Inverness. The musket ball marks can still be seen in the tower wall.
The Duke didn’t stop there. Jacobites were hunted for years and the Highland culture was suppressed by the strict enforcement of bans on the kilt and the Gaelic language. There was a reason that Jamie Fraser (from Outlander) hid in a cave in the Highlands for seven years!
“That Outlander Song”
As we sipped our whisky, Davy picked up his guitar and struck another chord. He told us that there was more behind “that Outlander song,” the theme song of the Outlander TV series on Starz. He launched into the same tune, but used the original lyrics to what is called the Skye Boat Song.
The familiar music is haunting when matched with the original words that tell the tale of Prince Charlie being smuggled across the water to the Isle of Skye while his men are left behind to die. It is the last bit of the song that Davy says tells the story most poetically:
the lad, fought in that day
Well the claymore did wield;
When the night came, silently lay
Dead on Cullodens field.
Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye
Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.
But Charlie didn’t come back. My blood grew cold with anger at the story, but Davy warmed the cozy, candlelit room with another pour and another story of the Highlands using two of the best storytelling tools in history – music and whisky.
After the whisky experience, I went with Davy and a few others to Gellions Bar, the oldest pub in Inverness, to listen as Davy took to the stage for a full set of Scottish folk music. By the time I left that night, I had many new friends with whom I spent the next week singing, dancing and learning about the “Highlands and the Islands” that had so completely won my heart.
Planning a trip to the Highlands? Save this for later!