INVERNESS, Scotland — Lured by tales of fairies, ancient standing stones, and sea monsters, my husband and I
visited the Scottish Highlands last summer with our daughters, ages 3, 6, and 8. Charlotte, Juliette, and Madeleine had seen the film "Brave," and knowing we'd be in Europe for my work, pleaded for a detour. My own curiosity was piqued by the vote on Scottish independence scheduled this year.
The last thing I wanted was to plan a point-and-stare trip, one where we'd drag our kids from one monument to the next with little or no interaction with locals. It's one thing to sightsee and another to experience a place, to learn about the legends, lore, and history that create its texture. I didn't want to travel like a local, I wanted to travel with one.
Help came by way of Gordon Pearson, a native of Inverness, who owns Wow Scotland, a boutique tour company that specializes in the Highlands. Pearson proposed a family-friendly itinerary that we couldn't refuse. Beguiled by big-screen, romanticized images of the country, we would have a chance to discover where modern Scotland intersects with and diverges from those depictions.
We spent six days in Inverness and the harbor town of Portree on the Isle of Skye, bookended by overnights in Edinburgh. Our train slid through magical scenery on the 3½-hour ride from Edinburgh to Inverness. Rolling hills, punctuated with some of the country's 7 million sheep, began to appear near Perth, suggesting our arrival in the Highlands.
Pearson, dressed in a modern denim kilt, met us at the Inverness rail station and drove directly to the storied waters of nearby Loch Ness. He brought us to the nontouristy side, an idyllic spot where waves lap the rocky shores of Dores Bay.
We skipped the exposition center that explains the loch's mysteries with science, and spoke instead to modern Nessie hunter Steve Feltham, who lives on the bay. "I moved to Loch Ness for the mystery," Feltham, the resident specialist, said. He's sat vigil for 22 years and holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous search. The girls had been skeptical about the creature when we'd read about it at home, but meeting and exchanging stories with Feltham gave them permission to believe. We strolled the shores of the loch, skipping stones and playing tag while keeping watch for the fabled monster.
From Inverness to Skye, one of the great surprises of the trip was delicious food; our meals were thoughtfully prepared, with an emphasis on seasonal, local ingredients.
The Dores Inn is a cheerful, family-run restaurant and pub on the bay, steps from Feltham's home. A half-dozen wooden picnic tables on the spacious front lawn are perfect for families when the weather's fine — or at least when it's not raining.
Inside the white cottage is a cozy dining space with low doorways, wood floors, and an old stone hearth. Mains include Highland beef, braised lamb, and beer-battered haddock. My carrot potage, seasoned with sweet chile and coriander, was comforting on a cold, blustery day. Adult portions are halved for children. Mac and cheese and roasted chicken fit the bill for the kids.
Once back in Inverness, my husband and I prepared for our one evening out alone. I'd organized a sitter in advance so we could see Highland folk band Schiehallion perform at the city's oldest pub, The Gellions. Frontman Kenny Jamieson was belting out "Nae Union" when we walked in. Its lyrics recall one of Scottish history's most iconic victories over King Edward II of England in 1314 at Bannockburn. The audience swayed, eyes closed. Fists were clenched, held up in a defiant gesture as they sang along.
Residents of Scotland go to the polls in September to vote on full separation from Britain. The pro-independence "Yes" campaign calls it Scotland's "date with destiny." Support varies demographically and geographically, and many fear the fiscal implications of separation. Iain Maciver, a teacher from Inverness who was in the audience, spoke about the vote: "Look at the number of countries that have declared their independence from the UK since World War II — around 50, I think. Not one of them wants to return to London rule. Why shouldn't we determine our own future? We're going to finish what we started in 1999 with the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. If it doesn't happen this time, it will with the next vote. Independence is inevitable."
Schiehallion changed pace with lively Scottish jigs that brought dozens to the dance floor. They closed their final set with a more somber tune, "The Flower of Scotland." It, too, refers to Bannockburn and has become the country's de facto national anthem. Whether patrons were moved by a sense of patriotism or by pints held in hand, it was an electric moment, one where ancient and modern collided.
My family headed to Clava Cairns the next morning, a prehistoric burial site located 20 minutes from Inverness, near Culloden Battlefield. Three exceptionally preserved burial cairns, each surrounded by stone circles, have stood as they are in this small wood for more than 4,000 years. Descending through a passage into the center of a stacked stone circle, Pearson said we were entering an ancient grave. Once inside the girls swept their fingers across the weather-weary stone, fascinated by the prehistoric cup-and-ring markings they found.
If we hadn't learned anything up to that point about the volatility of the weather in Scottish summer, we did on Skye. Weather cooperated during the two-hour drive from Inverness and for a look around the grounds of Eilean Donan, the castle that inspired the fortification in "Brave" and served as the setting in the film "Highlander." Once we made it to the island, however, rain and fog were prohibitive. "We don't have extreme weather in the Scottish Highlands, just extremely bad," Pearson said.
We managed a peek at stunning Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls, a roaring waterfall that plunges from sea cliffs into dazzling green waters below. Our swim planned for the Fairy Pools in Skye's Cuillin Mountains, however, had to wait for another trip. Instead of enjoying Skye's renowned scenery, we went indoors.
Dunvegan Castle became our backup plan. It's privately owned, dates to the 14th century, and still functions as the seat of the chief of Clan MacLeod. Inside, weapons, swords, and other treasures are displayed; stately family portraits adorn the walls. My two youngest were captivated by the prisoner held in the underground dungeon and the story of his demise. Each time we tried to leave, they'd drag me back to stare at the poor wretch.
The Fairy Flag, a delicate silk banner that dates to between the fourth and seventh centuries, is the family's most precious heirloom. One legend holds that an infant chieftain who'd been left alone began to wail. Fairies arrived and wrapped the child in the flag, soothing him with a lullaby. John Nicolson, the castle's curator, mentioned that one of the staff, a MacLeod who grew up near the castle, knew the Gaelic lyrics. When I found the staffer she told us that the lullaby, sung to her by her parents, had been communicated through generations. I asked if she would sing it. Her voice had an ethereal quality that brought an instant stillness to Dunvegan's grand entrance.
The Highlands speak to every persuasion of traveler, those in search of history, nature, food, and fantasy. My family left, smitten with the region's natural beauty and the warmth of its people; we even found a soft spot for the unpredictable weather.