- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

BALQUHIDDER, Scotland — A sparkling lake. Rolling hills — braes — of heather. A bucolic scene in the Scottish Highlands. For years I’ve sung that lilting ballad without paying much attention to the words, but go to Loch Lomond, and you’ll soon discover how poignant that song really is.

Last summer, Morag Dunbar, an effervescent blond Scotswoman with Skye blue eyes who knows the lore of the lochs and the echoes of history, introduced me to that quiet corner of Scotland in the southwest Highlands.

We started along Loch Lomond’s western shore at Tarbet with a cruise on the 24-mile-long freshwater lake. There the five-mile-wide loch narrows to fjordlike dimensions, cradled by steep green hills. The skies were dark and threatening; clouds hung over the hilltops; and Ben Lomond, a beloved and much-climbed peak, was swathed in mist.

As the Lomond Laird plied the lake’s northern waters, past wild mountain goats and a pair of nesting golden eagles, the cruise guide prepped us as if for a Loch Lomond trivia contest: Yes, it is Scotland’s largest lake in area, but Loch Ness contains more water, with 35-plus islands. Of the 20 species of fish, the largest is salmon, which can weigh 45 pounds. The powan, a freshwater houting, lives in only one other loch. And my favorite: A geological fault divides the loch, putting the shallow lower third in the Lowlands, and the deeper upper two-thirds in the Highlands.

On the east side of the lake, just above the shoreline, we passed a steep cluster of boulders amid thickly planted trees. On one large rock, “cave” was painted in white letters.

“Look,” Miss Dunbar says, “Rob Roy’s cave. He hid out there and was caught and escaped several times during his outlaw years. He eventually ended his days on his farm beyond these hills.”

Robert Roy MacGregor, born in the late 17th century to one of five clans around Loch Lomond, is one of those romanticized folk heroes in whom the Scots excel. Glorified by Sir Walter Scott in his novel “Rob Roy” and by Liam Neeson in the title role in the 1995 movie of the same name, “Robert the Red,” as he was called for his ruddy hair, was part Robin Hood, part brigand and all swashbuckling Scot. He was a cattleman in the protection business, safeguarding his and other people’s herds against rustlers along the trail to the cattle markets.

“What brought him down initially was 1,000 pounds he borrowed from one of his ‘clients,’ the Duke of Montrose, to buy cattle,” Miss Dunbar says. “He entrusted it to his chief herder, who absconded with it. When he couldn’t repay the loan, the duke confiscated his lands and declared him an outlaw. The government also wanted him for his part in the 1715 Rebellion.”

You don’t travel long through the Highlands without hearing about the Uprisings of 1715 and 1745, “the Fifteen” and “the Forty-Five,” as they are universally called, the major Jacobite rebellions aimed at restoring the Scottish Stuart kings to the British throne. The Jacobites, mostly Highland clansmen, fought their last battle under Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in April 1746. It ended in a bloody rout that changed Highland life forever.

Until then, the clans were powerful family units, with chieftains who protected and dispensed justice on behalf of loyal members. Clan feuds, usually over land and cattle, were fierce. After Culloden, kilts and bagpipes were banned, carrying arms was forbidden, and the clan system essentially was abolished.

“After the Forty-Five failed, two of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men were captured and imprisoned in Carlisle Castle in northern England,” Miss Dunbar says. “One of them was to be executed, the other released. In the song, the doomed lovelorn soldier tells his comrade, My spirit traveling the ‘low road’ (of death) will speed to Scotland, while you take the hard ‘high road,’ the overland route.”

O’ ye’ll tak the high road and I’ll tak the low road,

And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye;

But me and my true love will never meet again,

On the bonnie bonnie banks o’ loch Lomond.

I asked what happened to Rob Roy.

“Eventually he surrendered to the commander in chief of the British forces and was pardoned,” Miss Dunbar says. “In 1734, he died at home in the Trossachs, beyond Loch Lomond. He’s buried in a family grave at lovely Balquhidder Parish Church. We’ll try to stop there.”

The Highlands abound with country inns, and among the most delightful is Ardanaiseig Hotel, an ivy-clad 19th-century Scottish baronial-style manor house with 100 acres of gardens. A stay there is like a quintessential British house party: a roaring fire in the library, music recitals in the drawing room, a snooker table in the games room, antiques and paintings all over. The formal forest-green dining room looks out on idyllic Loch Awe, where guests can fish for trout in the morning and dine on it at dinner, courtesy of chef Gary Goldie.

It’s a great base for exploring this corner of the Highlands.

On our first morning, Miss Dunbar and I headed north to Glen Coe to see the site of the notorious 1692 massacre, an early chapter in the struggles between the Highland clans and the English crown. The Three Sisters hills gloomily draped in mist, a small waterfall splashing over granite rocks, it is a stark and evocative landscape often called the Glen of Weeping after the terrible events of 1692.

King William initiated this bloody incident when he offered to pardon all clansmen who took an oath of allegiance by the end of 1691.

“All the clans signed it except the reluctant MacDonalds of Glencoe,” Miss Dunbar says. “The clan chief left it to the last minute and missed the deadline. He signed it a few days late, but the king wanted to make an example of him and sent 120 soldiers, led by a Campbell, sworn enemies of the MacDonalds, to live in the village of Glencoe.

“There’s an unwritten law of clan hospitality,” Miss Dunbar says, “and the Campbell soldiers pretended to live peacefully in houses of MacDonalds for two weeks, when the king treacherously ordered his men to kill everyone. ‘Don’t let the old fox and his cubs survive,’ he is reported to have said.

“At dawn on Feb. 13, the Campbells slaughtered 38 MacDonalds; 300 others escaped, many of them to die soon after from starvation and exposure in the winter storms.”

The next day, we drove west toward Oban, a popular Atlantic Ocean vacation town also known for its Scotch whisky, past small lakes, green hills, fields of bright yellow rapeseed and meadows dotted with black Angus and red Highland cows. Occasionally, a startled large-antlered deer looked out from stands of purple heather. Mostly, though, we saw sheep.

“Why are there so many sheep?”

Economics, Miss Dunbar says. “In the 18th and 19th centuries, landowners saw that raising sheep for wool was more valuable than farming. They only needed a few shepherds, so they sent their tenants away to Canada, the United States, New Zealand, Australia. It was called the Highland Clearances, and it pretty much finished clan life.”

She suggested we “go down to the Bridge Over the Atlantic and have a pub lunch” as we turned south to Seil, a small island off the coast. Once a slate-mining center, it was linked to the mainland in 1792 by the Clachan Bridge. We drove over a small stream and parked in front of an 18th-century stone pub, the Tigh-an-Truish Inn.

“You just crossed the Atlantic,” Miss Dunbar says.

True, it is an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean, spanned by a small stone humpback bridge with a playfully grandiose name.

The inn has its own story.

When kilts were outlawed after the Battle of Culloden, Highlanders caught wearing them faced execution. Seil Islanders defiantly wore them at home, but before crossing onto the mainland, they changed into trousers at the Tigh-an-Truish Inn, which is Gaelic for House of Trousers.

Another day, we headed south from Ardanaiseig, following the 22-mile length of lovely Loch Awe from the top of the lake where the ruins of Kilchurn Castle, built about 1450 and once home to the Campbell clan, stand alone on a promontory against a backdrop of forested hills. It’s said to be the most photographed castle in the Highlands.

About five miles beyond the loch is Kilmartin Glen, center of the ancient kingdom of the Scots and today a serene area of prehistory. There is a church with early Christian and medieval crosses, a small 16th-century castle owned by the Campbells, and a house museum, but most haunting are placid meadows where ever-present sheep graze around ancient standing stones and burial cairns. Temple Wood, a grove of trees, shelters a 5,000-year-old circle of standing stones around flat gravestones.

Dunadd Fort, a rocky crag that was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Dalriada, an early homeland of the Scots, rises in another part of the glen.

From the rocky outcroppings and an intriguing footprint carved in stone at the summit, you have to imagine sixth- and seventh-century life in this royal stronghold, where the kings drank wines from glass beakers imported from Gaul, ate meat flavored with French spices and wore brooches made by resident jewelers.

On our last day, we circled back past Loch Lomond to the beautiful green mountains of the Trossachs, often called Rob Roy Country, and bucolic Balquhidder Parish Church.

We climbed a gentle rise to the graveyard to pay our respects to Robert MacGregor himself. He lies by the ruins of a stone facade, buried between his wife and two sons under the defiant headstone, “MacGregor Despite Them.”

Centuries after the English kings changed the face of Scotland, rebellious clan voices still reverberate in the glens and lochs of the Highlands.

•••

Ardanaiseig Hotel, Kilchrenan by Taynuilt, Argyll, PA35 1HE, Scotland; www.ardanaiseig.com; e-mail info@ardanaiseig.com; phone

44 (0)1866-833-333, fax 44 (0)1866-833-222; 16 rooms, some with four-poster beds, with lake or garden views, and an excellent dining room that serves modern Scottish cuisine with a French touch, such as monkfish poached in black olive oil, Inverawe smoked trout, fillet of Aberdeen Angus, and warm black fig tart. Doubles from about $190 in spring and fall and $250 in July and August, including full breakfast and VAT, the value-added tax.

Isle of Eriska, Hotel, Spa & Island, Ledaig, by Oban, Argyll, Scotland; www.eriska-hotel.co.uk; 44 (0)1631-720-371, fax 44 (0)1631-720-531.

Delightful 19th-century family-run manor house on 300-acre private island with 25 rooms, tennis, nine-hole golf course, indoor heated pool, spa, walking paths. Doubles from about $600, including breakfast and VAT.

Lodge on Loch Lomond, Luss,

44-(0)1436-860-201, www.loch lomond.co.uk; a lakeside inn with the air of a hunting chalet, gorgeous wide views, a beach and spa, and 47 rooms and suites with Internet access and other modern amenities, some with saunas and lake-view balconies. Presidents Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Carter have stayed there. Doubles in summer from about $275, including breakfast and VAT.

Continental Airlines flies nonstop from Newark to Edinburgh and Newark to Glasgow.

For more information, contact VisitBritain, www.visitbritain.com/ usa; e-mail travelinfo@ visitbritain.org; 800/462-2748.

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