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Spirit Of The Highlands: Sailing The Lochs Of Western Scotland.

Spirit Of The Highlands: Sailing The Lochs Of Western Scotland.

"My desire is always to be here" sang Sir Paul McCartney in his tribute to the Mull of Kintyre, and the Western Highlands have inspired the same loyalty in many who have come to know and love this secluded coast. The Scottish landscape is a theatre where the hills themselves appear to move in the shifting light, one minute swathed in cloud, the next a misty veil of sunlight, and later against a piercing blue sky the brilliant sunshine bouncing off fresh snow on the hilltops.
There is a lack of clutter here; this is scenery empty of the flotsam and jetsam of modern civilization. Instead it's full of natural wonders, creating an impressionist canvas that evolves with the seasons as well as the weather. In autumn, robes of purple heather drape the hillsides, crowned with golden bracken and birch. Winter russets, ochres and deep hookers greens are dusted with icing sugar snow before the emerald grass of spring appears, splashed with bright daffodils, wild primroses and carpets of bluebells. Then in early summer darkness hardly falls, the distant glow of the midnight sun lights the horizon and gleams on the white sand beaches. In his book 'Ring of Bright Water' author Gavin Maxwell describes perfectly the visitor's dilemma on getting his first view across the coast: "The landscape and seascape that lay spread before me was of such beauty that I had no room for it all at once..." A wild and inaccessible place. Places so beautiful rarely remain that way, but the Western Highlands have escaped because they are so difficult to reach. No roads existed before the 18th century and the highlanders struggled for survival on land of such poor agricultural value. Their solution was to raid the lowland farms before disappearing back into the hills, where they remained out of reach of the law. Such inaccessibility rendered them beyond the grasp of the British government, until the first roads were built by the army in order to gain control. Before then, the only successful conquerors were the Vikings, who arrived by sea in their longships and were able to penetrate deep into the hills by rowing up the long fingers of the lochs. Even today, this is a frustrating place to visit in a vehicle because one is faced with long road journeys to cover relatively small distances as the crow flies. It remains best conquered by sea, from where you can enjoy the ever changing view, savor the sense of isolation and absorb the atmosphere of the Highlands. We sailed from Inverary at the head of Loch Fyne in the county of Argyll. An orderly gathering of whitewashed Georgian houses, it sits a short but respectful distance from the imposing seat of the famous Campbell Clan, Inverary Castle. The Campbells arrived in Argyll in the 13th century and played a leading role in Scottish history. Constantly feuding with the Macdonalds, they supported the British army against the Jacobite rebellion in the 18th century; a loyalty that was rewarded with Dukedom. The 8th Duke married Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Louise and, as Master of the Royal Household, the present Duke will always be seen at the Queen's side when she attends an official function in Scotland. Our good friend Klaus, not Scottish but an Inverary resident for over fifteen years, guided us around the castle personally, as he has an expert knowledge of local history. He was quick to point out that the vast range of fearsome armory on display is not the cache of an enthusiastic collector. It was in fact kept at the castle in readiness for war, the weapons being handed out for use by the Clansmen as and when required for battle. Rows of vicious lances line the walls of the atrium, many with their original tassels still attached just below the blade. Their gruesome, if practical, task was to staunch the blood of the victims in order to prevent it running down the wooden handle of the lance and making it too slippery to hold - another reason there weren't too many visitors in the past! The flintlocks also on display were used at the battle of Culloden, from which the defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie fled in 1746, heralding final victory for the Hanoverian King George III over the Jacobites, and resulting in the British monarchy of today. Thankfully, a Scottish welcome now has a different meaning. The history may have been bloody and the weather unpredictable, but this is more than made up for by the warmth of the Scottish people. Indeed, many of the things that make Scotland so enjoyable exist because of the climate: a blazing hearth, hearty food and, of course, Scotch whisky. Whisky: the water of life. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of whisky to this part of the world, both economically and culturally. There were once as many as thirty four whisky distilleries just in Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula alone, as well as many more sprinkled around the coast and islands such as Islay, Jura and Skye. The local whisky store in Inverary stocks several hundred single malts, making it a good place to start a voyage of discovery in more ways than one. One of the oldest licensed distilleries in Scotland is at Oban, where they've been making whisky for over 200 years. The 'wash' (a type of weak beer made from malted barley) is distilled twice to give the malt its unique character and taste, and the two unusually small stills reflect the cramped nature of the site. This working distillery is still based in its original building in the heart of the town, just opposite the quayside, making it easy to stow away a few bottles as a souvenir. Whale watching with a good chance of success. Leaving Oban we headed west around Mull and then north between the islands of Iona and Tiree and were rewarded with a sighting of minke whales, and apparently even killer whales are occasionally sighted in this area. Unlike many places that claim whale watching as an activity, here there's about an eighty percent likelihood that you'll see some. Be sure to take your binoculars because seals, otters, porpoises and dolphins are also regulars along the coast and the area is incredibly rich in bird life, including razorbills, terns and wild geese. Life in the Western Highlands clings to the coastline because the sea has always represented the best, and until relatively recently the only, means of access. Castles were constructed on the loch shores near to beaches in order to keep their boats handy, distilleries needed to ship their products to market and villages depended upon the fishing for their livelihood. Taking to the water means you can avoid the usual necessity of long hours on the road, as well as the constant packing and unpacking that are the bane of the intrepid sightseer. And with no need to drive anywhere, you can safely make the most of all those whisky tastings with their generous Scottish measures! However, having the freedom to cruise the lochs and amongst the islands is worth so much more than mere practicalities. The hills and glens are at their most spectacular when viewed from the water; it's a privileged perspective shared with generations of local fishermen and sailors, but rarely glimpsed by the steady procession of passing tourists. You'll feel so much more a part of this ancient and mystical land when you approach the Mull of Kintyre as the Vikings did, with the mist rolling in from the sea.
Michelle Blore has visited most of the world's most glamorous locations by boat is the founder of Dream Sailing which specialises in dreamsailing luxury crewed sailing yacht charter. Visit dreamsailing dreamsailing and find out how to experience the world of luxury yachting for yourself.

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