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The Brave and the Bonnie


© St. Petersburg Times

I could imagine them, up on the jagged hilltops, with their tartan kilts and hellish swords; a clan of brothers and uncles and sons who put the defense of their kingdom above all else.

For a moment, I could understand why. This land, with its rolling hills and cold, rocky coastline that can take your breath away, is as beautiful as any polished emerald or rough-cut diamond.

I had come to Scotland to discover its beauty and rediscover its history. It didn't take long to realize that, here, it is impossible to escape either. This country is a living history lesson, set in a classroom of green fields and gray mountains.

Up in the craggy Highlands are ancient castles carved from stone, with walls that date back before the birth of Christ. Along the coast are villages and ports from which anglers for decades pursued tiny silver kippers and herring. From there now, the residents search for bigger riches of the sea: crude oil. In the south of Scotland, called the lowlands -- a misnomer to this flatland Floridian -- are the cosmopolitan cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The journey my wife and I made through this country had begun where its government has been based for nearly three centuries, 200 miles south of the Scotland-England border, in London. Knowing we had only a week to see as much of the country as we could, we decided to do it by train.

Scotland's rail system, we knew, wasn't as comprehensive as networks in more populous countries such as Germany or England. But like every rail system in this part of the world, it is clean, efficient and economical.

Our plan was simple: Go as far north as we could by train, then work our way back south.

The northernmost major terminus is Inverness, the self-proclaimed capital of the Scottish Highlands. Roundtrip tickets from London's King Cross station to Inverness were about $125 and came with only two constraints: We had to return within a month, and we couldn't travel on Fridays. Other than that, we were free to stop virtually wherever we wanted.

The eight-hour trip north aboard the sleek Highlands Chieftain took us through the fields and valleys of northern England and its beautiful Lake District. Briefly, we stopped in the ancient, inviting city of York, and in Newcastle -- home to industry and Newcastle Brown Ale -- in northern England.

As the countryside rolled out to the sea, the landscape changed from flat and green to rocky and gray. The seemingly endless sheep farms were slowly replaced by tiny port towns like Berwick and Dundee and St. Andrews, the birthplace of the game of golf.

When we arrived in Inverness it was nearly dark, but the city was hospitable. Inverness is a tourist town, relatively small (pop. 42,000) and steeped in history. It was a few miles southeast of Inverness where the last Scottish bid for independence was fought in 1746. There, in nearby Drummossie Muir, Bonnie Prince Charlie, heir to the Stuart clan of royals, went down with his clansmen under the swords and cavalry of England's Duke of Cumberland.

Today, Inverness is more inviting. Along Union Street, across from the train station, are pubs and shops where locals welcome visitors with a pint of bitter or lager. Across the wobbly yet sturdy foot bridge spanning the River Ness is Kenneth Street, a quaint, narrow road with more bed-and-breakfast houses than seem commercially profitable. A room costs about $25 per person on average and typically includes a completely fat-filled traditional breakfast of sausages, bacon, eggs and cereal or porridge.

As do many Scottish towns, Inverness has its requisite castles. Overlooking the river is Inverness Castle, so beautifully maintained that it even has modern glass windows and a clock made of flowers out front (nice, but a little out of character).

A short bus ride from town are the remains of the more medieval-looking Urquhart Castle. Built sometime in the 12th century, Urquhart (pronounced EK-urt) was once a strategic fortress along the trade route from Inverness to Scotland's northernmost towns. Part of the castle was destroyed in the 17th century by the armies of King James, to keep it out of the hands of the Jacobite rebels who wanted to bring control of the United Kingdom from England to Scotland and back into the hands of the Stuart clan. Enough of the castle still stands to give visitors a sense of medieval life.

Urquhart overlooks Inverness' biggest attraction -- Loch Ness. The narrow loch, or lake, and its rivers join Inverness with Fort William on the west and with Moray Firth on the east. The loch is a sight to see in its own right, but tourists flock here by the thousands each year to watch for the Loch Ness Monster.

Scientists believe the waters of Loch Ness are too cold and deep to contain any reptile like the one described by witnesses as far back as the occupants of Urquhart Castle, but that hasn't stopped zealous Scots from promoting the legendary Nessie the way an Everglades tourist trap pushes plastic alligators. Visitors can take Nessie boat trips, Nessie taxi and bus tours and spend time at the official Loch Ness Exhibition Center. Restaurants offer monster dinners, and you can get monster deals from retailers and local golf courses.

We headed south to the port city of Aberdeen and a taste of life along the North Sea. Some call Aberdeen the Gray Lady of Scotland -- almost every building, from the boarding houses on Bon Accord Street to the stunning government buildings in the city center, are made entirely of gray granite. Many of the streets are paved with granite cobblestones. Many of the pubs and restaurants have granite bars and tables. With the cold North Sea nearby and the fog and mist that's almost constant during winter months, the city's grayness can get depressing.

Of particular interest in Aberdeen is a tiny fishing community near one end of the City Pier (more a peninsula than a fishing pier) where box-like row houses have been home to fishers for decades. Today, like many Scottish port towns, fishing in Aberdeen is being replaced by another kind of maritime work: servicing offshore oil wells. Almost every building on Shiprow and Regent Quay in Aberdeen is occupied by some sort of petroleum-industry business, and various oil-rig ships provide constant work for the repair docks.

Aberdeen is cheap, compared to some of Scotland's bigger cities. A night's stay at a bed-and-breakfast runs $30 per person, and a good meal can be had anywhere along the main road, Union Street, for $10 to $20. Aberdeen also is the main ferry port for the Shetland and Orkney islands; sailings usually take about 14 hours.

The North Sea shoreline resembles the coasts of Maine or Northern California, only rockier, colder and more ominous. It is dotted by an odd mixture of salt-box fishing villages and lush golf courses that stay green year-round, even when it's snowing. The fog -- or haar, as it's known locally by those who remember Gaelic -- can roll in so thickly and suddenly that experienced captains have trouble finding port, never mind golfers finding looking for white balls.

What Scotland's coast has in natural beauty, its capital city of Edinburgh has in created beauty. Its 16th and 17th century buildings -- more than 16,000 are listed as historically important sites -- are as tall, curvaceous and impressive as any in Europe. Edinburgh's devotion to the arts and culture also rank it among the greatest of European cities. On one end of town, overlooking Waverley Railway Station, is a partly finished Grecian-style theater. It is said to be Edinburgh's only failure, because the city ran out of money to build it in the 18th century.

"Some call this the Athens of the North," explained Brian Marriott, a lifelong Edinburgh resident who with wife Yvvone runs the exquisite Lauderville Guest House in Edinburgh (about $35 per person a night). "Like Athens, Edinburgh has history and culture."

Edinburgh's grandest calling card is its annual International Festival, a celebration of music and arts that runs from mid-August to September. It is followed by two other important festivals, the so-called Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which fills the streets with high-hatted Scottish soldiers and the sounds of bagpipes and cannons.

Visitors from around the globe flock to the city for these events, giving it an international flair.

The city isn't lacking in culture during the rest of the year, however. Edinburgh's numerous theaters are outdone in the U.K. only by London's famed West End. Museums and other attractions are among the U.K.'s best.

Holyrood Palace, at one end of Edinburgh's Royal Mile walk that kings and queens once took when crowned, is a must-see. Holyrood is the official residence of the queen when she is in Scotland. When she's not there, visitors can tour the 17th-century palace and gaze upon appointments fitting royalty. They also view an odd collection of 111 mainly fictional portraits of fake ancestors that King Charles II commissioned; it was his attempt to establish a longer lineage than he really had.

Edinburgh's most impressive attraction, however, is its castle. Overlooking the city from on high, the 12th-century fortress seems to be the epitome of Scotland's history. The castle is site of the oldest church of Scotland, a tiny chapel in which Scotland's own Saint Margaret worshipped before her death in 1093. Near the church, in another building, Scotland's most famous leader, Mary Queen of Scots, gave birth in 1566 to King James VI of Scotland, who later became King James I of England.

Edinburgh Castle's history is as violent as it is divine, however. Here, 150 troops loyal to Queen Mary reportedly fended off an army of 12,000 loyal to England's Queen Elizabeth, from 1568-1573, about 130 years before Scotland agreed to dissolve its parliament and join the United Kingdom. The attack ended only after Scottish leader Sir William Kirkaldy was tricked into believing there had been a treaty between the warring countries -- with dire consequences.

"Kirkaldy's body was severed, drawn and quartered before he was beheaded," explained Edinburgh Castle guide Rob Joyce. "But that wasn't enough for the English. His head was hung atop the castle wall, and his body parts were mixed with those of his troops and spread across the wall, to deny him a proper Christian burial."

That bloody image stayed in my mind until we left Edinburgh the next day on a train back to London. Rolling along, I peered out across the soft, green countryside but couldn't look far before coming across the jagged hills.

Up there, on the hilltops, I could imagine them, the troops of Queen Elizabeth and the clan armies of Queen Mary preparing for battle that would ultimately lead them to the castle at Edinburgh.

And I realized that the mixture of bloody history and natural beauty is what Scotland is all about.

Originally published June 22, 1997

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