I have no known connection to Scotland. For all I know, my ancestry goes back to when the first humans arrived in the land that is now mainland China and settled there until 1990 when my mother boarded a plane and arrived in La Guardia, Queens in New York City with two suitcases and $300 in her pocket. My Company, on the other hand, has traced part of his lineage back to the Mackenzie clan of the western Scottish highlands. Steeped in mystery with emerald green mountains, navy oceans and lochs with an unsettling fog that moves through the land during early mornings, Scotland would be the next destination in our exploration.
There is some part of us that will always be rooted back to our ancestral beginnings, and while it may not be at the forefront of our consciousness, this connection can be felt in subtle gestures and our innate desire for self-identity. We may go to Mars and back, aided by technology that is evolving exponentially faster every year, but we will always be tied back down to the earth that gave birth to our DNA over a million years ago. Perhaps this is why when we ventured north and out into the Scottish Highlands to stand on the earth of my Company’s genealogy, I was filled with an excitement of once again getting to know something from the past.
To me, Scotland was and will always be a wild place. Perhaps it’s because the weather is moody even in August with the wind swept hillsides filled with purple wildflowers stubbornly coating the most rugged of trails. Or perhaps it’s the sparsely populated towns, as even the largest cities – Edinburgh and Glasgow – felt distinctly free, spirited and untamed.
We traveled to the western Highlands from Edinburgh, where we stayed for a few glorious days during the August Fringe Festival. It’s easy to take a 30 minute train to Glasgow from Edinburgh and then the Scottish Rail north to a number of villages, lochs, and mountains that all inhabit some unique taste of the rugged wild.
For me, the hardest part was deciding which part of the Highlands to visit given that we had one night and 2 days to spend. From the Cairngorms to Ben Nevis to the various Scottish Isles scattered on the western coasts, finding which town to settle in was a challenge. In the end, scarcity won, and I found a place based on last minute hotel availability: Glenfinnan. Glenfinnan was a 6 hour train ride north from Glasgow along one of the most beautiful routes in the Highlands, the Fort William to Mallaig route which was made famous by the Harry Potter train over the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
Running into the wild of the Highlands
The only way to experience the Highlands is by foot and accept that you’ll likely get wet. It is part of the beauty of the landscape and makes that hot cup of afternoon tea (or snifter of whiskey) next to a fire so much more enjoyable. Preparing with a rain jacket, thermal fleeces underneath, and waterproof hiking shoes are suggested (an umbrella really doesn’t work too well). We regret not bringing some rain pants.
My Company was on a much deserved vacation, and so we set out to fulfill one of his life bucket goals: to run in the Highlands (we already fulfilled another one in Santorini when he jumped off a boat and swam in the ocean). From our hotel, The Prince’s Hotel (one of three places to stay in Glenfinnan; the other, Glenfinnan House Hotel has incredible Scottish food and drink), we ran under the famous viaduct and right into the mountains along a path parallel to the River Shiel. This road continues onwards for about 5km, but mother nature began pouring rain about 2km into our run. Forty minutes later, we came back to the hotel and were told that if we, “wanted a shower”, we could have just stayed inside to get one.
Given that the Jacobite Steam Train passes through the viaduct four times a day (twice in opposite directions in the afternoon around 3:30pm and twice again in the evening around7:30pm though check the schedule for time changes), we also planned a short, muddy hike up to one of the many viewpoints in Glenfinnan for some spectacular views all while trying to escape the bites of the midges. This was, of course, the most popular destination in Glenfinnan as tourists from all over the world gathered at a high point to view the famous Harry Potter Hogwarts Express.
As luck would have it, we’d catch the Jacobite twice during our time there. While it brought back a few unpleasant memories of jockeying for position amongst aggressive Instagrammers in Santorini, we were able to catch a beautiful view of the train passing the viaduct from the fields below. The sun even peaked out for a hot moment before hiding again behind the fast dancing clouds.
Given Glenfinnan’s proximity to the train station – it is made famous by a train, after all – I was surprised by the number of cars we saw driving around the town when it was extremely walkable. Without a car and with a strong desire to explore the area every time the heavy rains stopped, we discovered a walking path just next to the Glenfinnan monument that took us along panoramic views of Loch Shiel, the monument, and a breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains.
In my dream parallel universe, I would come to the Scottish highlands every summer and hike up and down the munroes, the Scottish term for the short mountains scattered throughout the Highlands. I would walk to the coast and along the ragged rocks that hugged the oceans, which I imagine would be the darkest blue to black. I would search for the mysterious things that made Scotland so enchanting and test my luck against the temperamental sun, clouds and rain as they dance together to light up the emerald hills. I would search for the thistles and bluebells, the puffins, eagles and red deer, and I would not be surprised if I found castles, old churches, and roads that led up to windy, unknown but wild – always wild – places. But in the end, I would return to my warm fireplace, and I would sit and reflect on where the wild things are and where I can find them tomorrow.
When it came time to take our scenic train ride back to Edinburgh, I didn’t want to leave. I felt like I barely scratched the surface of the Highlands. It was like I had visited a snapshot from a single post-card and there would be so many other snapshots, like layers upon layers of a picture book that doesn’t quite age, showing roads to the unknown that criss-crossed amongst the trails and forests, all along the lochs that reflected the green, mysterious mountains of the surrounding extreme landscapes.
Edinburgh & the Fringe
The summers in Edinburgh are filled with festivals and parties, music blasting from every square and corner with the smells of fried fish and chips emanating from the small food trucks and stands that pop up all along the streets. It’s as if the entire city has woken up from the deep hibernation of a dark and cold Scottish winter.
Every year for three weeks in August, the entire town of Edinburgh is flooded with visitors from all over the world as the town effectively shuts down for the Fringe Festival, a boisterous, artistic and impressive showing of over 3,000 shows of comedy, dramas, music, magic and dance. This year, our visit coincided nicely with the festival, and we arrived to see the streets packed shoulder to shoulder with theater goers, performers and everyone else in between.
When you step into Edinburgh, it’s easy to feel as if you were transported back in time. Narrow cobble-stone streets, old curious shops, and the looming castle up in the hilltop all add to the feeling that you’ve stepped into a time machine back to 1910.
Overwhelmed by the selection of shows, my good friend and host, J–, helped us select a winning magic and comedy show. For some reason, magic is one of those shows I rarely hear of in the US outside of New York City, and the opportunity to see what Scottish magic would be like excited me. With a few drinks and snacks before from the food trucks, the show lived to up all the hype I had built up in my head.
If you’re here during another time of the year besides summer (when the city seems to have some kind of festival happening every week), Edinburgh still has a tremendous amount to offer between museums, incredible food stalls, quaint neighborhoods, distilleries and historic sites. I spent an afternoon wandering around the city and passed by Edinburgh Castle and The Elephant House, the cafe J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter books in, overlooking the public cemetery behind the cafe.
My favorite Edinburgh activity, however, was running and walking up Arthur’s Seat in Holyrod Park for a view of the city and seaside. Even in the enter of the city, I still felt I was in a wild place. The view of Arthur’s Seat, a cragged hilltop in the center of a large park, could be seen from multiple angles in the city, and on foggy days, I felt as if the entire city was hovering amongst the clouds.
Favorite Food & Drink
For some unknown reason, Scottish food often gets a bad reputation. Haggis, blood sausage, and venison were meals we gladly tried and genuinely enjoyed. A little animal blood and guts never really bothered me, and this year, I’ve been on an “exotic food” eating exploration. In fact, the haggis I tried at Glenfinnan House in the Highlands – mixed with mashed potato and spices – was incredibly flavorful and rich. I’d happily eat it again.
Of course, as much as game meat and its various left over parts were interesting, nothing compared to the Scottish seafood, fresh oysters, crabs, lobster and fish. I ate salmon, cod, lobster and oysters at every opportunity. In fact, I found one of the best fish and chips food stalls in Edinburgh while watching some Australians sing Scottish folks songs. With stacks of different hot sauces, a generous serving of tartar sauce and fresh, flakey catch of the day at 6 £, it was unbeatable.
This was followed by one of Edinburgh’s favorite seafood restaurants, Ship on the Shore, for some lobster and other sea critter delights.
While Glasgow has the title of gastronomy capital of Scotland, Edinburgh was impressive and held its own for a small city. One unforgettable tasting that we went to was Six by Nico, a place that should have a Michelin Star or will any day now, and brunch at Twelve Triangles, a bakery that specializes in fermentation, sourdough breads and fancy pickled vegetables.
Despite the culinary creativity blossoming in Edinburgh, one of our most memorable meals was after our sopping wet run in the Highlands where we tasted a bit of everything Scotland had to offer that day: duck, smoked venison, picked vegetables, and smoked mussels.
Throughout the Edinburgh Fringe festival, we drank beers at the various food stalls and pop ups that immersed the city. We had fancy glasses of wine at wine bars in the city (there were many), including a local favorite Simon and Gertrude in the charming neighborhood of Stockbridge and Toast in Leith. While it was on our list, we never made it to a whiskey or gin distillery which will have to wait for another time. However, and importantly, I learned how to enjoy a gin and tonic, a drink I’d always felt so-so about. The secret? Really good tonic.
When I left, I was moved by Scotland in a way that surprised me. I vowed to return. I looked up properties in Edinburgh and the Highlands. If I could distill the reaction, I believe it’s because the tethered spirit always desires touching something free, as if our civilized selves need some connection back to our earlier days when we roamed the earth and felt it – physically and without constraint – from every angle of our being. So many of our days now are spent indoors, sitting at a desk and staring at our phones or computers, that too little is spent on breathing in the air of the mountains, being rained on and coming back indoors to a fire, and trekking through the landscapes that we depend on. We now earn our food standing or sitting in a modern box, when perhaps the most primal, fundamental and true form of our inner selves desire to hunt it.
While we have grown and evolved, solved problems with ingenuity and pushed our creative boundaries, we will always be connected to the earth and the sun that birthed us. For those reasons, the core of our very existence will always desire the wild, the free, and the untamed to breath air into the flame of our spirit.