Enjoy Scotland's rugged landscapePosted on: 15 July 2010 by Mark O'haire
Escape from the cities and explore Scotland's rugged scenery in style.
What exactly does a Scotsman wear under his kilt? How big is the Loch Ness Monster? And will we see the haggis running around?
These are some of the typical questions posed by foreign visitors to Scotland - attracted by Edinburgh's festivals, world-famous golf resorts and the excellent shopping emerging in the heart of Glasgow.
All these things, of course, short-break visitors can fix for themselves. But to explore the miles of rugged countryside outside those cities, and appreciate the stunning scenery and history of regions such as the Highlands, they usually need expert help.
That's why Rabbie's Trail Burners - a tour company specialising in small-group excursions - proved such a big hit when it started in 1993, attracting visitors from the rest of Britain and around the world.
Year round, Rabbie's operates a luxury fleet of 23 Mercedes mini-coaches for a maximum of 16 people - driven by guides who enliven the commentary with a string of tales and humorous asides.
Our bus, departing from Glasgow, mixed visitors from the USA, Germany, Hungary, Japan and India, but we soon shared a smile. Maybe humour is more international than we think?
On the first stage of our journey, we headed north on twisting roads along the banks of Loch Lomond.
The loch is also popular with day trippers, as Glasgow and Stirling are less than an hour away.
Our driver and tour guide Gilbert, supplied a history of the area.
After stopping for some photos of the loch, which is surrounded by hills and forests, we began crossing the ancient natural fault line that runs across Scotland.
We continued our journey into the majestic Highlands - where scenery can change quickly and dramatically. Flat, fertile Lowlands plains gave way to shimmering lochs, rugged mountain tops and forest-filled glens.
How easy to forget this was once a dangerous frontier, fought over by fiercely territorial Highland clans such as the MacGregors, made famous by the folk hero and outlaw, Rob Roy MacGregor.
Foreign tourists on the trip gasped as we wound our way through the glen, hanging on the driver's every word as we learned about Mr MacGregor and his fate.
Bagpipe music in the background raised eyebrows and smiles. There was no mistaking we were in Scotland!
Travelling north through Breadalbane, which means the High Country, we climbed towards desolate Rannoch Moor.
At an altitude of more than 1,000ft, covered by heather and peat-bogs and dotted with dozens of pretty lochs, it is an untamed yet picturesque landscape.
And it contrasted with the spectacular mountain scenery as we passed the peak of Buachaille Etive Mor and down into Scotland's most famous valley, Glencoe.
With its dramatic cliff faces and steep slopes, Glencoe is one of the most spectacular and beautiful parts of the country - with a bloody history since a massacre in 1692.
On orders from King William, Scottish soldiers led by Captain Robert Campbell slaughtered 38 men, women and children of the Macdonald clan.
This was even more shocking as the soldiers had lived with the people of Glencoe for two weeks and killed them in their own homes. The Highlands were never the same again.
In Fort William - to the delight of young American girls on our tour - we got our first sighting of kilts. The further north you go, the more chance you have of seeing traditional dress.
In the shadow of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain, Fort William targets tourists with twee gift shops selling shortbread, all things tartan and even haggis.
The town is a great base to explore the surrounding area, which is popular with climbers and outdoor enthusiasts.
It is also part of the Mountain Biking World Cup circuit, offering some top-class runs.
Our next destination was made famous by a monster. No-one knows for sure if Nessie actually exists, but there have been many sightings, some legendary, and even a grainy photograph of a shadowy figure on the loch.
Since the 1930s, the inquisitive have flocked to the area to see more. No definitive proof ever suggested Nessie is real - but the Loch Ness Monster has attracted curious tourists to the area, eager to see a beast featured in big-budget Hollywood movies.
At 23 miles long and more than 700ft deep, Loch Ness is the largest loch by volume in Scotland and contains more water than every lake in England and Wales combined.
If you want to search for the monster or simply take in the scenery, the best way is to do a one-hour cruise. Our cruise carried tourists from around the world.
They experienced four seasons in the space of an hour and I was glad of the waterproof I had packed just in case. The brave ones of our party stayed on the top deck for a bracing experience, while others sought the warmth of the cabin for tea and shortbread.
During the cruise you have the option of stopping at the ruins of Urquhart Castle, once one of Scotland's largest.
Its remains include a tower house with splendid views of the famous loch and Great Glen.
Urquhart witnessed considerable conflict throughout its 500 years as a medieval fortress, and its history from the 13th to 17th centuries was savage. The visitor centre is an intriguing insight into castle life over the centuries.
The pretty village of Drumnadrochit sits on the west shore of the loch and is a popular base. There is no shortage of bed and breakfasts and guest houses. There are also several hotels overlooking the loch.
From Loch Ness we headed south again, stopping briefly in Spean Bridge before heading through the mountains of the Cairngorms National Park.
Our route took us alongside Loch Laggan, the setting for the BBC series Monarch Of The Glen, over the Drumochter Pass at 1,500ft above sea level and past 13th century Blair Castle, the ancestral home of the Duke of Atholl.
Last stop was the pretty resort town of Pitlochry, built on Victorian tourism and nestled among the mountains of Highland Perthshire.
After fish and chips without a fried Mars Bar in sight we headed back to Glasgow - all of us thanking Rabbie for tucking so much into such a short time.
By Victoria Mitchin
Victoria Mitchin was a guest of Rabbie's Trail Burners, which offers award-winning small-group tours around Scotland and northern England.
Her visit to Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands is either a one-day whistlestop (£36) or two-day tour (£65-80) ex-Glasgow. Guests pay extra for accommodation - from B&Bs to luxury hotels - and meals.
Victoria stayed at stylish boutique Carlton George Hotel in central Glasgow, with doubles from £89. Breakfast costs extra £14.
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