At 8AM sharp on Sunday morning, I was among the forty-odd exhausted and disoriented students who dragged themselves out of the warmth of their hostel bunk-beds and onto the bus. A few miles east of Inverness, we arrived at our first stop of the morning, the Clava Cairns—a site that our tour guide, Graeme, lovingly referred to as “a big old pile of rocks.” Apparently the bus driver is so perplexed by tourists’ interest in this “pile of rocks” that he protests this stop by refusing to get off the bus.
We non-protestors moved into a small grove set in a wide swath of grazing land. Autumn colors carpeted the earth, and although it was quite cold, the sky was clear and bright. We were confronted by rings of standing stones, three large cairns, ancient beech trees and monumental slabs of rock that stood tall and alone. These cairns are remnants of the bronze age, and are over four thousand years old. The stone structures have stood at this spot for far, far longer than what we know as ‘Scotland’ has existed. The cairns are thought to have been the burial places of ancient clan leaders. One of the cairns is a complete circle, with an inaccessible central chamber, but two of the cairns incorporate passageways that lead to the central burial chamber.
Each year, on Midwinter’s Day, the light of dawn shines though the passageways and illuminates the back wall of each chamber. It is clear that the cairns were intentionally designed this way, but no one knows for what purpose. The cairns were used as burial places a second time, over two thousand years later, and several bodies were cremated in pyres in the central chambers. Because of this, very few artifacts and bone fragments have been recovered. The stone circles that surround each cairn have been carefully selected for size so that the tallest stones flank the entrance and the shortest are directly opposite it.
We were given a good hour to just wander among the stones, and a hushed silence fell over the place. Everyone seemed a little dazed. We could hear cows mooing in a pasture beyond. When it was time to leave and everyone was moving towards the bus, I entered the biggest cairn one last time and crouched down at the back of the central chamber. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of purple. I looked closer, and in a natural cup in the rock, near the ground, I saw a figure of a woman, carved in purple stone. Her arms were raised over her head, and a metal loop at the top showed me that she had once been on a necklace.
The idea that this place holds so much significance to that person that they deliberately offered their token here, and the knowledge that people have been coming to this sacred place for almost four thousand years, was almost too much for me to process. It showed me that in a few, special places in the world, we still have unbroken links to our most ancient ancestors. I don’t know what that little purple figure means to whoever left it there, just like we know hardly anything about the people who built those cairns so long ago. But something in that little grove has attracted humans for thousands of years, and continues to inspire awe in each visitor. I boarded the bus last, and didn’t tell anyone what I saw.
We briefly stopped in Aviemore, a noted ski resort, and it is here that I caved to temptation and bought a packet of Malt Whiskey Tablet. Tablet is a Highland sweet that, like all good sweets, is composed mainly of butter and sugar—and in this case, whiskey. Our next major stop was at the ruins of the Ruthven Barracks in Badenoch, near the Cairngorm Mountains. Built in 1721 by the British Government to contain the Jacobite uprisings, the Barracks sit on a hill that allows a stunning view of the surrounding mountains. In 1746, the Jacobites sit fire to the Barracks, and there isn’t much left now. Castles and other structures have existed on this site as early as 1229, and it’s pretty obvious why.
At Pitlochry we were lucky enough to visit the Blair Athol Whiskey Distillery, a proud brewer of single malt, and we were even allowed a dram ourselves at the end of the tour. The whole place smelled deliciously of spirit, and the room full of aging whiskey barrels was especially impressive. Blair Athol single malt typically ages for twelve years, and there was a corresponding build-up of dust in the barrel room. The distillery exclusively uses fresh water from a beautiful stream that runs through the middle of the courtyard.
As a farewell outing, we took a walk through the Craigvinean Forest in Perthshire, along the banks of the River Braan. The old and mossy trees hid an enormous waterfall, and a viewing house designed to give a spectacular perspective on the cascading water did not disappoint. A little further up the river lay a cave that was the purported home of the fictional third-century bard Ossian. Rumor has it that in Victorian times, guides would dress up in skins and claim to be the bard himself for the enjoyment of tourists.
As we drove back into Edinburgh city center we were confronted by that delicious, familiar Edinburgh smell. For those of you who don’t know, certain parts of the city perpetually smell of roasting malt. Theses fumes waft over from the distilleries on the outskirts of the city. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Edinburgh was recently named the smelliest city in the world by a major travel website. Some people loathe the smell, but I have grown to find it very comforting. It was a bittersweet return home, but Hairy Coos, sea-monsters, drams of whiskey and battered haddock danced through my dreams that night. I am already scheming a return visit, and hopefully, it won’t be too long before my next adventure.