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County Town: Inverness
Population: 208,600
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Winter Wonderland

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The planet was in its infancy when a tumultuous collision of the Earth’s tectonic plates created the boundary of one its most outstanding areas of natural beauty. Marked by the geological laceration of the Highland Boundary Fault, that cuts across the country from Arran in the south-west to Stonehaven in the north-east, the Scottish Highlands have over 500 million years of history behind them.

For many, The Highlands are the real Scotland. An Eden, home to the flame-haired gaels, keepers of the Scottish tongue, who, during the Highland Clearances of the 18th Century saw their population decimated by famine and Lowland oppression. In British terms, The Highlands are the one true wilderness, so often misunderstood by the country’s leaders, and never cultivated to any great degree. Those who own crofts and small holdings do so in the manner of their forefathers. A place like the Knoydart Peninsula, north of Mallaig and accessible only by ferry, is a poignant reminder that among the holiday homes, people are living a life of subsistence, at ease with the land.

The Highlands is a region of great biodiversity; home to deer, pine martens, otters, and the elusive Scottish wildcat. The Highlands’ lochs are teaming with fish. Above the ground, eagles patrol mountain summits, scanning valleys below for any rodents or hares that may be foraging in the heather. Highland cattle, shaggy brown cows with fearsome horns and docile manners graze at peace here. The Highlands are very much alive. The image of the rutting stag, framed against the glen, is testimony to its virility.

It’s not just the flora and fauna, the breathtaking vistas of mist-veiled mountains, brimming with gravitas; the the Highlanders’ story is just as dramatic. And if their past was dramatic, embroidered with tales of patriotism, of the Massacre At Glencoe, the Jacobite Rebellion and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rallying at Glenfinnan; its present retains a sense of mystery which is sustained thanks to the area’s impenetrable feel.

There is no easy way to see the Highlands. That’s not entirely true: sipping pink champagne onboard a shuttling train on the West Highland Line to Mallaig is luxury. But in so many ways, to conquer The Highlands for yourself a pioneering spirit must rest within. The kind that died a little when satellite navigation started chirruping instructions for your every journey. In winter, the snow will shut many roads; the road through Glen Goe and Bridge Of Orchy is always vulnerable. So too, those in the Northern extremities of the Cairngorms – remember, there is a reason why Aviemore is Scotland’s premier ski resort, the Cairngorms National Park range gets its share of snow.

By summer, single track roads are like flint-grey capillaries battling through roadside vegetation. If the travelling – by ferry, post truck, bus, train or by foot on the West Highland Way – seems daunting, there is always the midge whose appetite can turn the most pleasant long summer evening into a maddening bloodletting. Do the right thing and marinate exposed limbs in Avon’s ‘Skin So Soft’ to keep them at bay.

Whatever you do, don’t let the midge put you off. Get a map, plan a route and go there. Where? Well, you’ll have plenty of choices. In fact, you’re spoilt for choice. The south-western quarter of the Highlands – not strictly The Highlands in the eyes of the Local Government Act, but surely a unitary authority would have to cede to geology – compose of the craggy wilds of Argyll and Bute, and the Western Isles . The latter grouped together like a coastal extension of The Highlands; if they’re not technically The Highlands, they have shared the same traumas. The 19th Century Highland Potato Famine and Clearances afflicted them too.

Carved from granite and whitewashed, towns like Inveraray , Argyll, have an enduring character An easy day trip from Glasgow , it is startling how remote Loch Fyne can seem. Inveraray’s 19th Century jail now attracts inmates armed with cameras rather than interring them – lunch at the George Hotel is a great place to celebrate life on the outside. Powering up the A83 as it winds north from Inveraray and you will stumble upon Oban , a pleasant harbour village looking out to the Hebrides. It is just one of the many west-coast towns that offer themselves as portals into discovering the islands. But this is really just an aperitif for what is to follow.

The A82 is one of the most spectacular routes to The Highlands, offering so much more than the perilous A9 that picks up the slack from Perthshire to Inverness . The road carves an undulating path past Loch Lomond , bisecting the Boundary Fault itself and nestling to the west of the Central Highlands, revealling the chiselled topography that made The Highlands famous.

This is where The Highlands graduates from the Firth Of Clyde and the epicentre of the Boundary Fault, to the number of peaks and glens which supported the clan system for hundreds of years. Verdure is surrendered to craggy dollops of rock and shaggy grasses and heathers. A road trip north along the A82 will take you to Tyndrum, a much celebrated staging post. From there, Bridge Of Orchy awaits.

An 18th Century settlement, Bridge Of Orchy was a product of its time. In an era of Jacobite suspicion, Major Caulfield’s bridge over the River Orchy was one of a number of roads created to facilitate military patrols in the area. Many settlements have coalesced along these old military supply routes – Crianlarich to the south being one. The Jacobite rising of 1689 had caused new monarch King William III much concern, and so be it; fealty from the Highlanders was something that he would never hear.

The cause to restore the Stewarts to the throne was endorsed by Highlanders divorced from Westminster parliamentarianism. The Jacobites were mainly Catholic and when the Reformation was enthusiastically pursued in the Lowlands of Scotland, religious reform changing the topography of Scotland’s faith, it opened up old divisions. The bridge from where the village took its name was part of the government’s campaign to pacify Highland resistance. Save for the odd low flying RAF Tornado the military have all but gone. Jacobitism was buried at Culloden near Inverness. Any contemporary invasions of Highland territories are in the name of tourism rather than oppression. North of Bridge Of Orchy the landscape levels out into a morass of lochans, rivulets and tufts of grassy marshland. This folks, is Rannoch Moor. Its perimeters are guarded by three munroes to its south. To the north the skyline swallows the mountain summits. Rannoch Moor is a poignant place, desolate and mercilessly exposed – only the odd granite boulder offers any hint of shelter as the wind cuts through the valley up to Glen Coe.

Glen Coe is the scene of one of The Highlands’ most epochal moments, when government soldiers under the command of Captain Robert Campbell of Glenloyn came upon the settlement of Alastair MacIain, 12th Chief of Glencoe and sacked it. King William had offered a pardon for those involved in the 1689 Jacobite Rising. But MacIain had erred, or rather was misinformed. Turning up at Inveraray on deadline day, only to find he should have been elsewhere, he failed to deliver his oath on time. As leader of the MacDonald clan, a sworn enemy of the Campbells after years of sheep rustling and sabre-rattling, he would pay. The ructions caused by the slaughter – where men, woman and children perished by in the glen – were blamed solely on the Campbell clan. But this was more than clan rivalry, it was the politics of suppression, and the orders came from the government.

Glen Coe’s vertiginous slopes arc over ten miles of imposing skylines rising out from Loch Leven. The Glencoe Visitor Centre was refurbished and reopened to tell the natural history of an area where mystery is not restricted to the who-did-what of the Glencoe Massacre, but extends to Ossian the Giant (a reclusive figure who keeps his counsel with the mountains), and the tribulations of many a hillwalker who may well ask the question: will I ever get to the top? Fort William is the biggest town in The Highlands, second only to Inverness in terms of population. Perched at the end of the Great Glen which runs east to west from the Moray Firth to Loch Linnhe, it marks the finish of the West Highland Way, and in itself, marks the end of civilisation save for the stratified hotchpotch of settlements that greet the weary traveller before he chances upon Inverness.

This is now the province of extremes. The north-western extreme, Durness, is an untroubled place where Beatle John Lennon holidayed. Cape Wrath, with its imposing cliffs and waterfalls is a suitably moody setting for the denouement of a west coast road trip. Drivers love The Highlands, even all though all routes meander like a river reaching its estuary. The roads from Fort William to Mallaig soon narrow, winding round woodlands, spotted pink in the summer with rhododendron.

There are some surprises yet to be unearthed in those roads north of Fort William. Inverness is a fully functioning modern city on the banks of the River Ness. Seeing the familiar touchstones of contemporary society after spending hours in awe of The Highland’s tranquility can shock some. So too the silver sands of Morar, and the sandy coastline off Arisaig on the west coast route up to the harbour town Mallaig. During summer, the vistas are more Mediterranean than Hebridean. Don’t worry, the midges and malt whisky will restore your bearings.

From Mallaig, ferries can be taken to Skye , Knoydart, Rhum and Eigg. So far from being the end of the West Highland Line, the arterial rail route to Glasgow and London , it is the beginning of a new chapter in discovering an area of Scotland which challenges the perceived wisdom that Scotland is a small country. It may be small in area, in population; but it has more coastline than France. With its mountains it casts a towering, statuesque figure. For drama, solitude and poignancy the Scottish Highlands are singularly beautiful. They also seem quite big. Well, there is plenty of space. You crave madding crowds? Look elsewhere.

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Battle of Falkirk - 1298, King David Hotel Bombing - 1946, Death of Jean Charles de Menezes - 2005
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