After traveling to the far, northwestern reaches of Scotland for Stephan’s Inner Hebrides must-do, we found ourselves a solid 12-hour drive from London, our gateway back to the U.S. Not really looking to tackle a marathon drive before a long travel day back home, we instead opted to take a few days to get back to the city, and take in a couple more sights along the way.
For some bizarre reason, the whole time we were in Scotland, I kept insisting that, if we were driving anywhere nearby, we should make a stop at Loch Lomond. Stephan couldn’t figure out what the sudden obsession with Loch Lomond was, and kind of looked at me with a bit of bewilderment every time I mentioned it. One afternoon, I finally just said, ‘don’t you feel like if you’re traveling around Scotland that you at least have to pause at the home of the Loch Ness Monster?’ As soon as the words ‘Loch Ness’ exited my mouth, I had one of those moments of embarrassing clarity… the freakin’ Loch Ness Monster does not, in fact, live in Loch Lomond (three letters – P… H… D).
Since I’d been so hellbent on seeing Loch Lomond for a solid week and a half, though, we decided why the heck not? It was five hours back in the direction of London anyway. So, after bidding adieu to our lovely hosts in Skye, we headed south through the Scottish Highlands for the national park. And much to our delight, Loch Ness was conveniently about halfway to Loch Lomond, so I got to visit all of the lochs that were swirling around as one big jumbled mess in my ditzy brain. We journeyed back eastward from Skye, retracing part of our original route from Edinburgh, around long, amorphous, ribbon lakes that twisted past the foothills of imposing hillsides. As far as the eye could see the terrain was blanketed with the dried, woody branches of heather gone by. I have to imagine that when the heaths are bursting with fresh heather blooms in the spring, the hillsides have to be just spectacular. Perched at the convergence of three of the highland lakes, the 13th-century Eilean Donan Castle stands like a sentry over the vast moorlands. An antiquated, stone footbridge leads out to the fortress, whose ancient towers offer inspiring panoramas of the surrounding peaks.
When we eventually reached Loch Ness, we were greeted by an enormous swath of sapphire water. With a surface area of nearly 22 square miles, and a maximum depth of over 750 feet, the gigantic lake contains more fresh water than all of England’s and Wale’s lakes combined. Additionally, due to the effects of a thermocline (a temperature gradient in the water), the lake never freezes. In fact, on chilly days, cold water often sinks below underlying warmer water, and the displacement and temperature flux causes the lake to ‘steam.’ We followed the loch’s western edge for several miles toward Inverness, finally finding a spot to pause along the rocky shoreline. Although a pretty enough lake, I’d say the fanciful legend of Nessie, the lake’s famed monster, trumps the overall scenic beauty of the lake (a sentiment shared by our hosts in Skye). Sightings of the mysterious Loch Ness Monster date back an astonishing number of years, to around the 6th century A.D. While we failed to record a glimpse of Nessie on our visit, we were happy to have stopped… touristy, kitschy, whatever you want to call it, it seemed the thing to do for an hour. Better still, by the time we’d reached the lake’s southern shores, some ethereal wisps of vapor had begun to cling to the lake, creating an eerie shroud in the retreating afternoon sun.
After a spectacular (albeit 3:30 p.m.) Highlands sunset, and a few more hours of driving, we finally arrived in Croftamie, a small town nestled in the southeast corner of Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. Our digs for the next few nights was a lovely second-floor apartment in Ned and Jenny’s rustic farm cottage, and were welcomed with a loaf of freshly-baked (and still warm) bread and an assortment of homemade jams – including ‘hedgerow’ jam, apparently Jenny’s improvised blend of whatever berries are available and are plucked from the bushes by the grandkids (and delicious to boot). Ned and Jenny were a lovely couple and, after learning they’d journeyed to Tanzania and stayed for five years after falling in love with its natural beauty, we knew they were kindred spirits.
We decided to do a little ‘hill walking’ (as the locals call it) in the national park, and we were lucky enough to get a bit of sunny weather to do so. Ultimately, we settled on a couple shorter walks that came highly recommended for their lovely views of the lochs. First, we headed for the top of Ben A’an, a prominent hillside on the eastern fringe of the park that overlooks two large lakes. The forty-minute drive to the trailhead was quite beautiful in the early morning, with the coiling country road meandering through frost-covered glens, creating a peaceful sea of white. The road eventually climbed up Dukes Pass (touted as one of Britain’s most scenic drives), which offered some gorgeous panoramas of the frozen countryside. After arriving at the trailhead, a moderate climb on a well-defined trail led us up a largely-open hillside to a rocky summit blanketed in heather plants. The view from the top was indeed beautiful, with sweeping views of Loch Katrine and Loch Achray, both enveloped by the frostbitten trees of the Trossachs (the adjacent forested glens) and the dominating peaks along the Highland Boundary Fault.
Total distance: 2.7 miles
Elevation gain: 1,358 feet
From there, we set off for Conic Hill, a comparable mound on the southeastern shore of Loch Lomond. The trail was quite similar to that of Ben A’an – a moderate grade up a predominately bare slope. As we marched through what had rapidly turned into a gusty wind, a few highland cows looked up curiously from their meal on the grassy hillside. We shivered and shuddered through the frigid bursts of cold air to the top, where we enjoyed a lovely, albeit brief, panorama of Loch Lomond and a few of its small, evergreen-covered islets. After snapping a few shots, we pretty quickly headed back down the hillside. As the sun began to creep lower in the sky and a few clouds rolled in, it was pretty stinkin’ cold up there (the lack of photos should be indicative as to how ridiculously freezing that wind was). However, aside from the bit of Arctic chill we felt up there, it was definitely a nice little walk with a great view of my coveted, yet monster-less, loch.
Total distance: 3.0 miles
Elevation gain: 1,209 feet
Before heading back to England, we made one final stop in Scotland, in the large, western city of Glasgow. Stephan had missed out on a couple of local dishes and, given his surprising fondness for haggis, was now eager to try the others. Because we were passing by the city anyway, we decided to stop for a couple hours around lunchtime. When we pulled into our parking spot downtown, it immediately felt like Christmas was in the air. The rich sound of traditional carols echoed from the horns of a brass trio on a nearby corner, and the rows of tiny shops shimmered with small gold lights and trees trimmed with and purple and white baubles. We wandered over to Princes Square where Stephan ordered a plate of haggis and black pudding fritters. He’d seen black pudding on a number of menus but, similar to the haggis, was a bit hesitant to give it a try. Seeing as our journey would be over in a matter of days, though, he figured he had to give it a whirl. As is often the case, he ended up giving a thumb’s up to the lightly-battered blood sausage (pork sausage that’s made with blood), and capped it off with a much-anticipated cranachan. A traditional dessert of Scotland, it seems a bit similar to a trifle – layers of whipped cream, toasted oats, and fresh raspberries all layered together with a drizzling of honey and whisky (whisk[e]y loses its ‘e’ in Scotland). Obviously, that one was a predictable hit. Finally, with a full belly and renewed sense of pride after tackling a couple of daunting menu items, we were cleared to continue on to England.