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Issue 4 - A scenic dream

Scotland Magazine Issue 4
September 2002

 

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A scenic dream

For many people, the real Scotland is to be found in the Highlands. Tom Bruce-Gardyne heads north

If it is true what they say, that Scotland has a split personality, on the one hand reserved and slightly dour, on the other passionate and sometimes sentimental - it is perhaps not entirely surprising. The country itself is split in two by a giant geological rift which runs south west to north east from the Firth of Clyde to the south Aberdeen shire coast. The Highland Boundary Fault was the result of intense volcanic activity deep in the earth's crust. At the time of its birth, the Highlands would have rivalled the Himalayas, but 400 million years of Scottish weather has stripped away mile upon mile of rock to expose a core of black granite. Even so that Highlands are still clearly visable from space.

There is a parallel rift, some 200 miles to the north, that is even more dramatic, running from Fort William to Inverness. The Great Glen Fault resembles a deep gash as if Scotland has been struck by a giant axe which almost created a separate island out of the land north of Loch Ness. Yet it is the division between the Highlands and the Lowlands which has always divided the country.

To get a good idea of how the mountains rise up out of the plain, simply drive north up the M9 motorway. As you pass Stirling the flatlands to the south are rich and fertile, characterised by reddish soil and sandstone buildings, while to the north lies the land of granite and semi-subsistance farming. This difference has long been recognised. After a failed harvest which provoked virtual famine in parts of the country, the Government passed the Wash Act of 1784. It was decreed that anyone distilling whisky north of the Highland Line would be exempt from the hated malt tax on condition that the stills were kept small and the barley used only came from the local parish. To placate the Lowland distillers who scented unfair competition, the authorities ordered that no whisky should cross the line. The trouble was the pure malt produced on a small pot still after a gentle distillation in the Highlands was infinitely better than the grain whisky pumped out at a fearsome pace from huge stills in the Lowlands. The fact that it was illegal only make it taste even sweeter.

Whisky was just one symbol of defiance. After the Battle of Culloden in 1745, the Government in London reckoned it was time to try to stamp out resistance in the north and bring the Highlands to heel once and for all. Among other measures it was decided to ban the wearing of the kilt. Suddenly the garb of Old Gaul took on a whole new significance, and the Hanovarian regime risked succeeding where Bonnie Prince Charlie had failed. The Young Pretender has been unable to persuade a sufficient number of Highland chiefs that there was more to life than hammering the neighbouring clan into submission, and that they should unite against a common enemy to restore a Jacobite to the throne.

over the next 70 years the balance between the Highlands and the Lowlands tipped irreversibly towards the latter. The urban population in the Central Belt was booming due to the industrial revolution, while the north was slipping into a backwater. As Edinburgh started to shine as a beacon of the Enlightenment, the HIghlands were becoming a dangerous twilight zone.

Soon the Highlanders themselves were being driven off the land in the Clearances, when the landowners decided to replace them with sheep. Many emigrated, though not on the scale of Ireland after the potato famine, and others headed south to find work in the factories. in Glasgow they would congregate by Central Station under the railway arches that became known as the Highland Umbrella. Though the Clearances were undoubtedly brutal, it was also true that much of the land was simply too poor to sustain the number of people then living there.

Yet as this hardship was being endured, the region was being transformed into a place of mythical beauty, of majestic glens, stags, castles and tragic queens in the novels of Sir Walter Scott. This was Scott's 'Land of the mountain and the flood' - a romantic vision that revolutionised people's perception of the Highlands in the early 18th century when his books were published, and the one that endures to this day. His epic poem The Lady of the Lake effectively created the Scottish tourist industry, as people flooded into the Trossachs to soak up "the scenery of a fairy dream" and the romance of Rob Roy. Then, just over a decade later, when George IV paid his famous state visit to Edinburgh in 1822, Sir Walter stage-managed the entire affair and turned it into a tartan pageant. When the King appeared, his 20 stone bulk swathed in several acres of plaid, it suddenly became fashionable to trumpet one's Celtic connections, however obscure.

Under the Victorians, this sentimental attachment to the region was taken a whole lot further. There were the noble Highland regiments helping to safeguard the British Empire, and there were the big sporting estates to which the ruling classes migrated every summer to shoot, fish and be close to their Queen. After the death of her beloved Prince Albert, Queen Victoria seemed to find solace only in the scenery around Balmoral and, later, in the figure of her man servant, John Brown.

Meanwhile the railways and good roads had opened up the Highlands, but as the tourists delved deeper into the mountains and hidden glens, the locals were steadily draining southwards in search of an easier life. Today what remains is a great, unspoilt wilderness - one of the few remaining in Europe. From satellite photos the Highlands look amazing. On the ground, with time to wander and explore, they are even better.