In every nook and cranny of Scotland, you’ll encounter one terrific tale after another. Imagine a cool summer night up in the Highlands. Around a campfire. Surrounded by the wind blowing gently across hills and mountains. Let the myths charm you. Here are the most famous legends of the Highlands.
“History has its truth, and so has legend. Legendary truth is of another nature than historical truth. Legendary truth is invention whose result is reality. Furthermore, history and legend have the same goal; to depict eternal man beneath momentary man.” ― Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three.
How does one find the Holy Grail —that cup that grants us everlasting life— ? And how long would the search last? Contrary to myth, the road to immortality has no specific timeline. And yet, the Grail lies within us. While many beliefs in the afterlife permeate human civilization, there is unquestionably one agreement amongst every era: a person’s deeds on Earth determine if they are granted immortality. Whether in the Heavens or in the hearts of Man. Whether told by the campfire or the bedside, legends are the doorway between the living and the departed.
A trip to Scotland proves that this country is brimming over with folklore. While the Lowlands feel more grounded and earthly, the Highlands exist in a dimension beyond the earthly realm. In Scottish Gaelic, it is known as Ghàidhealtachd: ‘the place of the Gaels’, one of Britain’s many ethnicities. Within this wondrous region, visitors can find some of the most breathtaking horizons the United Kingdom has to offer. It is a place unlike anything on Earth. The region spans just over half of Scotland’s territory, separated by the Great Glen Fault line. And it is a massive collection of mountain ranges that runs its craggy fingers through the waters of Heaven. Not simply because of the height of its mountains, but due to the actual land climbing upwards.
The trip begins in Edinburgh, which, in itself, is absolutely captivating. [find also The Italian Eye’s guides to Edinburgh festivals and Edinburgh’s Gin bars]. However, the Lowland region is not the only side to Scotland’s story. Within the Highlands, one can find the true face of the Tartan-clad warriors of the United Kingdom. They resisted the Acts of Union in 1707 and still continue to weave an intricate history, of course, in the traditional hospitable fashion practiced for generations. We wanted to satisfy our curiosity hands-on, so we called upon the wise and friendly experts of Rabbie’s Trail Burners to help us during our trip to learn about the true legends of the Highlands.
The Kelpies, near the River Carron, the Helix
You will be immediately taken aback by what appears to be two glittering chess pieces in the foreground of a Scottish sunrise. Towering 30 meters above the countryside, this eccentric pair of sculptures is one of the Clyde’s rarest attractions, a masterpiece designed by Andy Scott in 2013. Weighing in at 300-tons, these mythological behemoths proudly stand guard at the entrance of the Fourth and Clyde Canal. Underneath their haunting beauty lies a fable that’s best left to the imagination and not to experience.
In Scottish folklore, kelpies are deadly fairies that are infamous for shapeshifting into beautiful white stallions. While innocently waiting by the waterfront, they lure curious victims into the deep waters of the Highland’s many lochs. It is recommended that if you see a white horse near the shore, you don’t disturb it, as it could be the last thing you ever see before being dragged into a watery grave. Those that assert that “wild horses couldn’t take me away” have obviously never encountered the fearsome kelpies.
Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Balloch
The first official stop of the tour is marked by one of Great Britain’s most treasured sites—Loch Lomond, an expansive freshwater lake that crosses perpendicular to the Highland Boundary Fault. One of Scotland’s largest bodies of water, it encapsulates over 30 natural and artificial islands, and is blanketed by calico-patterned elms atop its mountainous terrain. The park itself is eerily drenched in stillness and quiet, with only the occasional chirping of birds and animals nearby, or local passersby respectfully whispering to their acquaintances.
You’ll find the perfect opportunity to snap a few photographs of the landscape, which reflect the peaceful nature of this mysterious destination. You’ll be initially unaware that the dead silence you feel is something almost supernatural, as Loch Lomond is the setting of the popular folk song, “Bonnie Banks ‘o Loch Lomond”; a favorite to play at the end of festivals to commemorate one’s ancestors. The lyrics, “O ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road” refer to those who have died and must travel through Scotland before going to the next world.
Glencoe and the Clan MacDonald
Among the snow-capped mountain ranges of Glencoe lies a terrible and tragic history—the massacre of the Clan MacDonald. After the Jacobite uprisings, King William, Prince of Orange offered to pardon all clans that had taken part in the insurrections, under the condition that each one declared allegiance to him and not to their exiled King James II by New Year’s of 1692. Messages were sent from all of the Highland clans; however, one was not so fortunate. Alasdair MacIain of the MacDonald clan didn’t deliver his message in time, but it was nevertheless accepted and his kin were given assurance that they were safe. Master of Stair John Dalrymple—a Lowlander elite and political muscle in passing the Act of Unions of 1707—disagreed and sought an excuse to make an ‘example’ of the Highlanders.
He commissioned Captain Robert Campbell and 120 soldiers to stakeout the MacDonald estate, posing as guests at the MacDonald; after 10 days of merriment, they massacred 30 clan members on Feb. 13th. Many of them died in their sleep, and more died of exposure to the harsh winter as they fled their homes. Some soldiers, due to the ruthlessness of the attacks, refused to carry out the orders, and the government covered up the massacres. One of the greatest crimes in Scotland is that of ‘murder under trust’; an unforgivable offense. Despite this, word spread quickly and to this day, the Glencoe Waterfall marks the place in Scotland where the MacDonald clan’s lament flows eternally.
Fort Augustus and Loch Ness
Probably the most stereotypically familiar landmark in the Highlands is the Loch Ness, and one mention of the name conjures nebulous images of the elusive and frightening beast—the Loch Ness monster. Another of Scotland’s behemoth creatures, ‘Old Nessie’ has achieved fame and recognition beyond imagination and has even inspired scientists, news reporters, and psychics to comb the entire lake in search of it. One of the earliest known sightings of the mythological creature was documented in the 7th century, and since then strange reports of what could possibly be a lone plesiosaur, group of migrating seals from the North Sea, or floating deadwood have surfaced.
The lake itself is also larger than life, stretching for miles and miles; as far north as Inverness and as far south as Fort William, possessing a depth of over 230 meters. While here, although probably bemused by Nessie’s absence (but you may still think that ‘the truth is out there’), you’ll be delighted to simply grab lunch at the local fish and chips pub, walk across the flowing Caledonian Canal, sit by the waterfront, and snap photos of one Scotland’s most remarkable locales.
The Highlands are home to some of the world’s bravest fighters. And although famous icons such as William Wallace have become symbols of the country’s freedom-fighting warrior class, Scotland’s role in World War II has helped it to find its reputation amongst legend. One of the United Kingdom’s most treasured attractions, the Commando Memorial is a Category A listed statue of epic proportions. It towers above the horizon at 17 feet. It features three soldiers in a neoclassical style cast. Complete with military gear, fatigues, and stern, hardened faces.
The monument itself is located near Glen Spean, just near the Spean Bridge. It gazes southward towards the Ben Nevis. It was the work of Scott Sutherland. In 1949, He was a veteran of the war and an award-winning sculptor. His statue commemorates the efforts of Scotland’s virtuous infantrymen in Europe’s battle against Nazism. After the war ended, Sutherland was offered the perfect opportunity to share his vision of Scottish pride with his countrymen. By entering a local sculpting competition. He couldn’t know that his artwork would win first prize (200 pounds). Or that scores of veterans and tourists from around the world would visit it to pay homage to their fallen comrades.