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To the Highlands – Extract from THE HIGHLANDS by Paul Murton

  28 Jul '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Paul Murton, presenter of Grand Tours of Scotland and Grand Tours of the Scottish Islands returns with his latest travel book, this time tackling the Scottish Highlands. In this introduction he examines what the Highlands really are, and how they inspire and intrigue the imagination year after year.


The Scottish Highlands cover a vast area of northern Scotland. This book concentrates on the ‘classic’ Highlands – the Grampians. The region is bounded by the Highland Boundary Fault in the south, the western limit is largely formed by the Trossachs and the A82 as the road heads across Rannoch Moor towards Glencoe. The lochs of the Great Glen and the Caledonian Canal mark the northern border, and the eastern edge roughly follows the eastern boundary of the Cairngorms National Park as it meanders over high tops towards the Angus Glens.

For most of my life I have lived on the edge of the Scottish Highlands – first on the shores of Loch Long in Argyll – historically the ‘ship loch’ of galleys, birlinns and Viking longships. Backing onto Beinn Ruadh where my father’s ashes were scattered by the Atlantic winds, my childhood home looked south and west towards the Firth of Clyde and the Lowlands, while to the north, craggy hills rose in steep waves towards the mountains of the Arrochar Alps and Breadalbane. As a student at the University of Aberdeen, I was continually drawn west to the mountains of the Mounth and the Cairngorms, spending weekends and holidays hitch-hiking to find the freedom of the high places, clearing my mind of the clutter of study and essay writing by climbing Lochnagar or following Jock’s Road across the purple scented moors. After more than a decade of absence, I returned before the millennium to live in the lee of the mountains in a house that sits just yards from the Highland Boundary Fault. To the south lie Flanders Moss and the Carse of Stirling. To the north lie the woods and forest-clad Menteith Hills. Beyond them, the land rises to meet the peaks of Ben Venue, Ben Ledi, Ben Vorlich and Stuc a’ Chroin, mountains lying on the edge of the southern Highlands.

The novelist Sir Walter Scott, the ‘Wizard of the North’ was impelled by the romantic notion that human character is shaped by the landscape. In his celebrated novels, Highland protagonists reflect the rugged environment that bears down on them. This is a world where a heroic landscape creates heroic people – men and women whose spirits are Highland – wild, untamed, and true to nature. While I don’t buy into the idea that Highland living confers a degree of moral and existential authenticity that’s unavailable to less fortunate mortals, I think it’s true that the Highlands, as a physical entity, can have a profound effect on most people, visitors and natives alike. They certainly have had on me. The ancient landscape of the Highlands has helped shape my view of the world and has influenced the person I have become. My heart, you could say, is in the Highlands.

But what are the Highlands? The obvious answer is a geological one, I suppose. As my brother, The Professor of Geology, likes to point out, the Highlands are separated from the rest of Scotland by the geological fault line that runs from Arran and the Cowal peninsula in the south-west to Stonehaven in the north-east: the Highlands are everything lying to the north of the Highland Boundary Fault. But I argue that there is much more to the Highlands than this fixed geological reality. The Highlands are also a concept: mountains of the mind, peaks and rock spires of the imagination, a landscape of myth and legend. The Highlands we experience have a set of unique qualities that have nothing to do with rocks and fault lines, and everything to do with our response to the landscape, which has changed over time as ‘ways of seeing’ have evolved.

Early travellers regarded mountain environments as harsh, alien and hostile, a view that was informed by notions of natural beauty that derived from scripture. For generations the ideal landscape was epitomised by the Garden of Eden: a sacred, fertile world of abundance where humanity could flourish. The countryside of the English shires,with its well-tended fields and bucolic scenes, seemed closer to this concept of natural beauty than anything north of the Highland fault line. Having learned to admire tamer landscapes, southern visitors to the Highlands considered themselves a long way from Eden when confronted by wild weather, barren hillsides and windswept moors.

The author, soldier and government spy Daniel Defoe, who toured the whole length of Britain in 1724–26, described the Highlands as a ‘barren and frightful country . . . full of hideous desert mountains and unpassable, except to the Highlanders who possess the precipices’. For Defoe, and many others like him, this was a land of robbers and murderous clans whose principal occupation seemed to be cattle rustling and fighting – a land where the natives spoke with a foreign tongue and whose manners, customs and dress were from a completely different world.

The existence of this other world was well known to all Scots who lived on the other side of the Highland fault line. For centuries, Scotland was a kingdom divided into Highlands and Lowlands. Scottish monarchs fought bloodily for control over their northern neighbours, whom they regarded as an uncivilised rabble and who frequently plundered the fertile Lowlands for livestock, goods and even women. Preyed-upon Lowland farmers and smallholders came to hate everything about the wild men of the north, their culture and their mountainous homeland.

It is also true that Highlanders regarded the Lowlands and southern society as an equally alien and threatening culture, whose destructive influence was spreading year by year into their domain – into the Gàidhealtachd – a land where an ancient Celtic society was still dominated by warrior clan traditions. Seeing the inexorable material and social rise of the Lowlands, Highlanders feared for the future of their culture and independence and did whatever they could to resist change. They felt isolated and surrounded by southerners – Sassunach – the Gaelic word for Saxon, was a term that was applied to most foreigners.

In the 18th century, two Jacobite rebellions – or risings as their supporters called them – further exacerbated the Highland–Lowland divide. In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, arrived in the Highlands with high hopes of reclaiming the crowns of the United Kingdom, no money and only a handful of supporters. His presence in the Gàidhealtachd aroused ancient feelings of loyalty, and the dream of a Gaelic cultural renaissance. Several naturally conservative clans answered the call and rallied to the Royal Stuart standard. The army eventually assembled by Bonnie Prince Charlie comprised in large part Gaelic-speaking Highlanders. The Presbyterian, Protestant Lowlands mostly ignored the prince’s call, and looked on warily as the Jacobites marched south, scattering government troops in their wake.

The eventual defeat of the Jacobite cause in 1746 pierced the heart of the old Gàidhealtachd. Bonnie Prince Charlie spent five months on the run in the Highlands – a fugitive protected by devoted Highlanders. The prince and many of his key Jacobite supporters then fled to continental Europe, but the fate of the Highlands was sealed. The Gàidhealtachd became a militarised zone under an army of occupation. Jacobites were hunted down, imprisoned, transported to the colonies, or executed in large numbers. Tartan was banned and so was wearing the plaid as the victorious government clamped down on Highland culture. In fact, just about everything that people today identify as Highland was then seen in a negative light, representing all things uncivilised, rebellious, primitive, impoverished, wild, inhospitable and alien.

But once the Highlands and its inhabitants had been safely subdued, attitudes changed and outsiders began to make journeys of discovery into this unknown land. They began to see the people and the landscape through different eyes. A generation after the Jacobite defeat at the Battle of Culloden, the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his failed rebellion chimed with a new artistic and cultural movement – Romanticism – which drew from a deep well of emotion, unrequited love and heroic failure, where reason was the slave of the passions. The Highlands – its people and decaying culture – had these attributes in abundance. These were the elements that inspired Sir Walter Scott to weave narratives set in the Highlands. Scott drew the Highlands as a place of magic, mystery and adventure, where the natives were brave, noble human beings. Scott’s tremendous. popular success created a new phenomenon – the tourist seeking a taste of Highland adventure.

Among the first tourists was Sarah Murray, who came to the Highlands on a quest to discover the picturesque and the sublime. Sarah found both in spades – usually in the guise of raging torrents and waterfalls – and wrote gushingly about her experiences in her hugely enjoyable book A Companion and Useful Guide to the Beauties of Scotland, first published in 1799. I quote liberally from its pages, partly for its insights into the Highlands of the 18th century, and partly because it is very entertaining.

Sarah Murray was a 52-year-old widow from Kensington when she embarked on her travels. She had married late in life. Her husband was a Scotsman, Captain William Murray, the third son of the Earl of Dunmore in Perthshire. Sadly, after just three years of wedlock Captain Murray died. In her grief, Sarah’s desire to know the land of her husband’s birth more intimately grew. In May 1796, she left London with her maid by her side while her manservant took the outside seat of her horse-drawn carriage. In her book she offers instruction to the would-be traveller: ‘Provide yourself with a strong, roomy carriage, and have the springs well corded; have also a stop-pole and a strong chain to the chaise. Take with you linchpins, and four shackles, which hold up the braces of the body of the carriage; a turn-screw, fit for fastening the nuts belonging to the shackles; a hammer and some straps.’

Practical advice. In Sarah’s day, the roads in Scotland were little more than rough cart tracks, full of potholes and steep inclines (what’s changed?) – so the tourist had to be prepared for all challenges – especially having sufficient food to get him or her through an uncertain day. Sarah considered it essential to have a good quantity of wine on board – in case of emergencies – and worthwhile to pay extra for a reliable and sober driver. To keep her man Allan sweet, she gave him an extra half-crown a week – an enormous sum in those days. Probably worth it if you didn’t want to spill your wine!

After Sarah Murray, other tourists arrived on the scene. Many were following Scott’s literary trail and keen to visit the scenes described in his epic poems and novels. Black’s Picturesque Guide to Scotland was on hand to help. Full of literary quotes, Black’s was among the best-known early guidebooks available. I frequently quote from its pages too, to demonstrate how little or how much things have changed in the Highlands and how ways of seeing the landscape have altered over time. First published in 1840 in Edinburgh, Black’s Guide remained in print for nearly a century. My father always kept a copy in the glove compartment of his car when we went on holiday. With its elegant engravings of Highland views and beautifully produced maps, the battered old green book became an early inspiration for my own travels across Scotland, first as a teenage hitch-hiker and later as a film-maker.

Another early inspiration was W. H. Murray’s incomparable Mountaineering in Scotland. Murray wrote his book in a German prisoner of war camp during the Second World War. His pioneering account of Scottish climbing during the 1930s had me spellbound. The quality of his prose and his instinctive rapport with the natural world encouraged me to look more intently at the landscape of the Highlands. So, with a backward glance and a nod to my illustrious predecessors, I offer you my own guide to the central Highlands.


Paul Murton is well known as a documentary film maker whose work includes Grand Tours of Scotland and Grand Tours of the Scottish Islands (4 series). He is the author of The Hebrides and The Viking Isles. 


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