Taking the high road Highlands: Enchanting and tasty walking tour puts the hiker on top of the world, with all of Scotland and Ireland before ye.

August 30, 1998|By Brigid Schulte and Tom Bowman | Brigid Schulte and Tom Bowman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

REABAG MOUNTAIN, SUTHERLAND COUNTY, SCOTLAND - We had just passed the Allt nan Uamh, or bone caves, where some of the earliest inhabitants of this wind-swept and isolated Highland country made their home. The hiking book warned that the trail was a bit eroded from here to the top of Breabag, a rocky gray plateau that rises above the heather and the scattered lakes like a humpback whale.

We soon learned, as we would on a score of hikes and hillwalks through Scotland and Ireland, that "eroded" is a mere euphemism: Like the ancients who lived here and the deer stalkers and sheep who tread the hills now, you make your own way, without comforting trail blazes or cleared paths.

We followed the steep uphill course of a stream brimming with waterfalls. The hardened ground soon gave way to a mattress-like peat bog that gave every soggy step an extra spring, which is fine with the proper waterproof footgear.

After about 90 minutes of trailblazing, we reached the top. The weather, as it would be throughout our week in the Scottish Highlands, was brilliant. The sun sparkled on the lakes and on crumbling castles below. And the view was soul-stirring; not a living thing, save a few sheep, could be seen for hundreds of rocky, haunting miles. In Sutherland County, an area about the size of Delaware at the far northern tip of Scotland, sheep have outnumbered humans 20-to-1 since the notorious "clearances" of the 19th century, which forced many a small farmer to the New World.

We caught our breath, drank in the solitude and headed back down the whale hump for the drive on a one-lane highway back to our home for the night, Dornoch Castle, a renovated 16th-century bishop's residence just north of Inverness on the gentler east coast.

After a meal of the best mushroom soup on earth (but anything tastes delectable after a long day's hike), venison and fresh salmon, we made our way up a curving, dungeon-like stone stair to the friendly pub. There, surrounded by visiting golfers and a crowd of locals, owner Michael Ketchin instructed us in the finer points of single malt scotch.

"Glen Livet?" he sniffed at our first choice. "That's the lowest common denominator. Sort of like your Budweiser." He then gave us a brief history of the six classic malts, each from a different region in Scotland: Cardhu, Dalwhinnie, Lagavulin, Oban, Glenkinchie and fiery Talisker, the volcanic brew distilled on the Isle of Skye. Each night thereafter, we tried something different. After ruling out those that tasted like peat bogs or something from the medicine chest, we settled upon a favorite: that unpronounceable and decidedly unpeaty Bunnahabain (boo nuh ha vin).

We were on a two-week walking and hiking tour of Scotland and Ireland, eager to spend most of the time off the well-worn tourist path and in search of that perfect inn. We were also there to unearth Scottish ancestral roots and to visit rarely seen Irish relatives.

Our journey began in Edinburgh, an ancient university town of hills, monuments and narrow streets that became known as the Athens of the North. The city is dominated by Edinburgh Castle, a squat 11th-century fortress perched on a dormant volcano. It is here that Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James, who would later become King James I of England.

Touring the castle's great halls and tiny rooms, you can see Mary's private chamber, its leaded-glass window peering to the streets below. Also on display is the famed Stone of Scone, Scotland's coronation stone that was returned by England only recently after hundreds of years in Westminster Abbey.

If you're here in August, book a room early and try to get tickets to one of the many operas, plays, ballets or concerts of the Edinburgh International Festival. (We had no trouble getting last-minute tickets but a terrible time finding a room). Stretch your legs by walking up the monument-studded Calton Hill, where young Alexander Graham Bell hiked.

Next to the hill, you'll find great lodging at Parliament House Hotel and a fine meal at the nearby Cafe 1812. If you're in search of your roots, go to the General Register Office, across from Waverly Station, which holds old parish records before 1855 and marriage and death certificates after 1855. Unfortunately, we found six James Bowmans who would have fit the ancestral bill. We gave up the search; we had hills to hike.

North to the Highlands

We rented a car and began our journey north to the isolated Highlands. On the way, we stopped at two towns steeped in Scottish history: Bannockburn and Stirling. At each intersection and traffic circle, we would chant "left, left, left" to remind ourselves to drive on the "wrong" side of the road.

At the field in Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce defeated the overwhelming forces of England's King Edward II and won back the Scottish throne. Take a stroll along the broad field and meandering river and visit the small museum here that details the fight.

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