A journey by rail across Scotland’s north and west takes in the deep traditions and volcanic beauty of the Highlands. A notable omission is any talk of independence. By Bruce Wolpe.

Walking in Scotland

Jagged rocks at the top of a hill. In the background, rolling hills and bodies of water.
The Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye, Scotland.
Credit: Frank Wiesen / Alamy

It’s all happening in Edinburgh. Bruce Springsteen has just been in town. Harry Styles was here before him. (Even United States President Joe Biden knows who he is, per his joke at the White House Correspondents dinner: “You might think I don’t like Rupert Murdoch, that’s simply not true. How can I dislike the guy who makes me look like Harry Styles?”) The old city, with its monumental stone edifices that absorbed attacks for centuries, has been engulfed by hordes of young culture-setters baring a lot of skin. In these midsummer days, the temperatures are rising from the mid-teens, first light arrives about 3.30am and flowers are raging. It’s a riotous festival scene in the flagged streets.

This is the last of our post-Covid revenge tours to make up for what was lost in the plague. It’s with Macs Adventure, an expeditionary enterprise focusing on hiking and walking trips. We are circumnavigating northern and western Scotland by rail. Train to a scenic village, stay in a bed and breakfast, walk the next day, train to another town. The houses of the towns and villages are made from either broody, Scottish-castle sandstone, or white lime mortar with dark roofs and window shutters. The houses convey a great sense of order – even rectitude – throughout the rugged countryside. You can see it in South Australia too, where many Scottish migrants settled. Many of the older stone houses and cottages of Adelaide look like homes in the Highlands.

On a Sunday in Blair Atholl, a village in the middle of the country, we watch the opening of the Highland Games with the Atholl Highlanders Parade. A cadre of 50 bagpipers and militia with rifles from centuries past evoke history, pride and legendary might on the field before the hammer throw began. To American ears in this century, the skirls across the Scottish glen from the bagpipes recall another, distant battleground: 9/11 and the annual commemoration on the site of the former twin towers in lower Manhattan. The haunting tones across Ground Zero stir the memories and loss of that day. But this Sunday is lovely for all assembled. No tears in Scotland, just cheers.

To my romantic mind’s eye, the Isle of Skye was always a dream for one purpose: to get away. To be isolated. To be haunted and refreshed by its ragged and rugged raw beauty. Skye is all of this. By the end of May, with 19 hours of light, there are long days to fill with hiking in the Highlands. Everyone is garbed in outdoor gear. And almost everyone heads to the Old Man of Storr, a volcanic formation from millions of years ago. Walking it, you are reminded of the South Island of New Zealand, of Tasmania, of the Snowy Mountains and some of the smaller peaks in Colorado. Skye can transport you to so many different summers, even as it reminds you of the winter that is always coming, for those summers are too short. You can always see a loch or the sea, and always see the hills. The air is pure and crisp. Stiff winds. Skye unwinds you, to see and stretch and think.

Haggis. Cannot do it. And it’s on every menu. The dish is revered. This lad says it is awful. I’d rather indulge in Canada’s poutine – and I hate poutine. So let me count the haggis’s ways: the minced entrails of heart, liver, lungs, with grainy oatmeal, all larded with suet. The spices we like – nutmeg, cinnamon, coriander – and the aromatic stock, but none of this can redeem the ground organs and the casing (often stomach) in which everything stews. Given what it takes to actually swallow it, the dish is a testament to the manliness of Scotland’s men, and to the fortitude of the women. I’d rather wear a kilt. In winter.

But modern Scottish cuisine has bloomed, and is superb. Its chefs are like Scotland’s version of Neil Perry, Mark Best and Maggie Beer, who began changing the landscape of food in Australia three decades ago. The love of Scottish salmon has spawned schools of cured fish dishes, including Staffin mackerel and wild bass crudo with elderflower, and halibut with lentils. Then there’s pigeon tart, and confit scallops with pork fat. Cod, deer, venison, beef and bird are married with flowered herbs, mushrooms, smoked vegetables, broths and berries. The new is triumphant.

Sadly, Aussie wines do not make it to many restaurant wine lists. One chef told us the transport costs were too high. France, Italy, South Africa, Chile are the winners from that tyranny of distance, which is a shame. The country needs more delis – and in another life I would call mine Lochs and Bagels.

Next to the restaurants with the cuisine are the pubs, which serve up all the oldies, craft beer of every stripe, gins with colours and of course whiskies that will stiffen the resolve of any warrior defending the homeland.

I had expected, in the pubs, to hear talk of politics. In particular, talk of Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon’s decision to step down as first minister came just weeks after Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation as New Zealand’s prime minister in January, and left the landscape of Western democracies diminished by the departure of two women generally viewed as breakthrough leaders. But in Glasgow, a scandal was brewing over the Scottish National Party’s finances, with donors questioning the use of funds raised for the independence referendum. By April, it seemed Mar-a-Lago had come to Scotland. Sturgeon’s home was raided by police. Her husband, Peter Murrell, was arrested, questioned for 12 hours, and then released without charge. Last month, Sturgeon herself was arrested and questioned by police before being released. The investigation continues, casting a pall over her legacy as the longest-serving first minister.

Today, Scottish independence, which defined Sturgeon and her leadership, is dead. More dead, even, than the prospects today for a republic in Australia. There is no talk of it in the pubs. There are no signs in the front yards. A Highlands innkeeper who opposes independence – though he declares some respect for Sturgeon – says, “Independence will come, but not in my lifetime.” An older gentleman in the port town of Kyle of Lochalsh informs me that, because Scotland is much wealthier than England (fact-checked, with 115 per cent of England’s per capita GDP) “England will never let it go.”

So, come to Scotland in the Kingdom that will remain United for a while longer. Beautiful, lush, quiet, deep, craggy. Lochs and rivers everywhere. Hills to climb and haggis to avoid. Great beer and whisky and quiet adventures to enjoy. Craggy and resolute. Land that is really old. Plenty of solitude. And inner happiness.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Hold the haggis".

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