Fault lines, volcanoes, and glaciers all had a part in forming the stunning and varied landscape of Scotland. From moorlands and bogs to rolling hills and mountain peaks, it could take months to explore all that Scotland has to offer.
History Written on the Mountains
Solidified lava spewed from a massive, earth-changing volcanic explosion created the Red Hills on the Isle of Skye. All of the volcanoes in Scotland are now dormant. There have not been any eruptions in recorded history. History recorded by humans that is, but the history written in the landscape is obvious and stunning.
Along one of the trails we hiked, we experienced a small quaking bog. Each footstep depressed organic mass that developed over water. It was as if the land exhaled as we stepped down and inhaled after we left.
Standing among these hills as rays from the sun begin to wrap their way around the mountains into the valley is enough to inspire any artist. This is a photographer’s dream. And sure enough, we came upon an entire line of photographers along the trail. They stood on the trail, cameras perched on tripods, capturing the glory of the waking dawn.
We picked our way behind the shutterbugs, not wanting to photo-bomb them, but also trying to avoid the bog behind them. They didn’t seem to mind. We were all here for similar reasons. Beauty fills us all with joy. Scientists have not discovered a formula that proves this, but haven’t we all experienced joy from overwhelming beauty? There is much more to life than formulas and lists (even though formulas are fun too).
Traversing the Glen of River Coe is an iconic journey. Glaciers have scooped U-shaped valleys through volcanic mountains. It is like walking through the history of the earth.
Misty clouds play between the peaks and surround the mountaintops. Strong gusts of wind constantly change the picture before us temporarily clearing the mist. Streams tumble down the high rocky crags then fall through the heather, and into the moorland of the valley.
We both breathed deeply of the pristine air and majesty of the glen.
This is also where I slipped on boggy soil for my first intimate encounter with peat soil. It does stain through all layers of clothing, just to let you know so you don’t have to try it yourself.
Jacobite Train on the Glenfinnan Viaduct
Construction of the Glenfinnan Viaduct began in 1897. It is the longest concrete railway bridge in Scotland and is 100 feet (30 m) high. Steam from the Jacobite train as it passes over the viaduct makes it a picture-perfect scene. It is plain to see why this Jacobite steam train was used as Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films.
Not far from the Viaduct is the site where in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie landed and joined clansmen in a Jacobite uprising. Sadly it ended in bloody defeat. A monument of a Knighted Highlander now stands on the shores of the north end of Loch Shiel as a reminder of the clansmen who lost their lives to the Jacobite cause.
Fairy Pools and Bogs
Hiking is one of our favorite ways to experience nature on each continent. Every zone offers its own unique adventures from elevation climbs in Peru, to trails we had to swim in Nicaragua. Here in Scotland, the bog and quickly changing weather take hiking to a different level.
“One man lost his Wellington yesterday,” a worker near the fairy pool hike informed us. “You might lose your shoes on the trail, it’s quite boggy right now. Some are going in up to their knees.”
We took his advice and instead of following the loop trail we made it an out-and-back trail skipping the boggy stretch that crosses the upper hillside and back down the next valley.
Peet Bog FAQs
About 20% of Scotland is covered in peat bog which can be meters thick.
A peat bog is a wetland composed of partially decomposed organic material. Due to the acidity and high water level of the bog, plant life does not fully decompose. The organic matter on the bottom of a bog is the darkest material as the build-up year after year has compressed and decomposed it further.
Peet bogs are a major carbon sink. Acidity and water levels prevent organic matter from completely decomposing. Because of this, carbon gathered from the environment during a plant’s lifetime is retained in the soil. Peet bogs are 50% carbon matter.
Peet bogs create an anaerobic (without oxygen) condition that slows decomposition. Near Hadrian’s wall, archeologists found the body of a child buried in the corner of a Roman barrack over 2,000 years ago. They suspect that the child was murdered due to the position of the hands. The child appears to have been tied up. The burial location is also suspect since Romans did not bury their dead within living quarters. Someone was trying to hide the body.
Near the tip of the Isle of Skye is the hike to the Quiraing outlook.
Every hike is a battle with bogs, wind, rain, and daylight. Occasionally we have a rain-free hike, but most hikes include at least a mist of rain and sometimes heavy rain. Even if the sky is cloudless when we start a hike, we always take our rain shells. They are almost always needed.
We hiked up the mountain toward the Quiraing outlook changing out our layers with the weather as we went. Having started later we knew we had to turn around at a specific time to get back to the car before daylight ran out. It would be impossible to avoid getting bogged in the dark. Each new twist and turn on the trail however beckoned us forward to see what was around the next bend, urging us to speed forward, and never getting disappointed.
It seems that our hikes always take longer than prescribed. There is always something additional that we just have to explore. This is why on the way back to the car we decided to take an alternate route.
The alternate trail was a much better trail, that is until it abruptly ended in a mudslide. We looked down the mountain and saw that the trail continued 30 feet below us. With daylight running out and no time to retrace our steps, we took the reasonable choice. And thus unfolded my second intimate encounter with peat soil.
The slide was, shall I say, mostly controlled. I’m enamored with the landscape of Scotland even if it sticks to my backside.
The North Coast 500 (NC 500)
The NC 500 is a 516-mile scenic route around the north end of the Scottish Highlands. The route starts in Inverness on the west end of Loch Ness and follows the coast around the top end of the mainland. It meanders back down towards Applecross and then back to Inverness.
In many places, the road is single-lane with two-way traffic. Pullouts for passing bulge out on each side of the road. Every vehicle must be looking ahead for traffic. Whichever vehicle is closer to a pullout stops to let the oncoming traffic by. The road is not ready for heavy tourism so I can understand why the locals feel such frustration with the NC 500 being named a scenic route.
If you do take the route, please plan to spend much longer than google maps suggests both for the scenic stops and traffic. With no deadline, we tried to be mindful that locals had places to be so we pulled off to let them pass if they were behind us and tried to be the one to pause in a pull-off for oncoming traffic. We are visiting their home.
Snapshots along the NC 500
The town of Wick is an old fishing village on the top of a cliff. The cliffs rise straight up on three sides and dwarf the protected port below. The village installed steps along the cliffside snaking down to the port 230 years ago. A natural ledge at the base creates a perfect haven for docking boats to unload their catch. Remains of an old stone building rest at the sea end of the ledge.
Locals still maintain the steps and they are fairly easy to navigate down. While walking up the 330 steps I tried to imagine the climb while carrying the entire catch of the day.
Morning in Scotland
We are living beside a loch near the Isle of Skye for a couple of months to experience the changing weather and life in a small village.
When sunlight first begins to consume the morning fog, the damp verdant hills shimmer and glow beneath white resting clouds. Fog is quickly consumed as the morning light rises. The mist dissipates and the distant hills appear.
Rather than ending with a blue door, I’ll close with a blue sky and a rainbow another symbol of hope with change.