Visiting The Land Of Our Forefathers

The Falkirk Wheel

After departing our lovely flat and picking up our rented Mercedes we headed out into the wide open spaces of the Scottish countryside towards Fort William. Gregory, our driver, enjoyed piloting the luxurious car on the “wrong” side of the road and experienced no difficulty zipping around the numerous roundabouts along our route, making me wonder why we Canadians opted for traffic lights at every corner. Valerie was the tour guide, map reader, and GPS expert who listened carefully to “Missy”, the bodiless, smug voice that told us where to go. She seemed to relish the word, “recalculating” when we missed a turn. My other son, Bruce, sat back and enjoyed the ride, or occupied himself writing dozens of postcards to friends and family back home. Except when the driver wheeled around sharp corners a little too fast or sped along narrow, winding, well-paved back roads, I admired the ever-changing rural vistas, peppered with thousands of sheep, lush farmland, and cattle on the rounded hillsides.

Our first stop at the site of the Falkirk Wheel, a unique lift lock that flipped small boats from one level of the canal to the next on a giant rotating wheel constructed to operate on gravity. It is so unusual that a large visitors’ centre caters to the crowds of people who come to view this engineering marvel.

Ever-changing Highland Vistas

A surprise for me were the thousands of acres of new growth evergreen forests hugging the hillsides as we drove through the countryside, marred here and there with large ugly patches of clear-cut slopes where trees had been recently harvested. My long-held impression of Scotland being composed of nothing but sombre, barren rounded hills interspersed with hidden lakes completely changed as we drove through rich farmland. Much of Scotland is still controlled by large estate owners who rent it out to tenant farmers. It is hard to believe that only 453 persons own 50 per cent of all privately held land in Scotland. There is little or nothing that tenant farmers can do to reform this modern-day feudal system.

Old church and graveyard

Gradually the landscape did change, and many forbidding, cloud-covered mountains (which Canadians would call hills), folding into each other, appeared amidst a number of long, narrow lakes or “lochs”. We were in the Scottish Highlands, inhabited by only 9 persons per square kilometre compared to 67 in Scotland as a whole. There on the outskirts of Fort William, Valerie and “Missy” our GPS lady tyrant, found our upscale country lodge sitting all by itself along a paved narrow sideroad among the sombre green hills that pushed their way above the horizon in all directions. The cozy, small Glenspean Lodge, in a scenic setting and housing about 25 guests, hit just the right note for us-tired after several hours in the car. We were able to relax and then reach out for two days to nearby attractions. I did not realize, until a little time had passed, that my kids were literally surrounded by their Scottish clan’s ancestral homelands.

The next morning, anxious to explore on foot, we sauntered along the narrow road in a light drizzle and uphill via a narrow lane. At the top was an ancient stone church and cemetery perched on the side of a hill, overlooking the misty mountains in the distance. The tiny church, without windows, had a creepy, bare-bones feel that did not invite anyone to linger. Eroded tombstones, with barely visible inscriptions, stood awkwardly at the head of pronounced lumpy mounds of earth, some higher than others. It was as if the burial plots had not yet had time to settle. Locals later explained that very visible mounds were piled on top of the burial sites as a mark of community standing for the departed. The more pronounced the mounds the higher the prestige of the individual, something akin to large headstones in to-day’s cemeteries. Countless Highlander tears must have been shed on that lonely hillside over many decades. On this dark, damp morning, the atmosphere was hauntingly gripping, and strangely eerie.

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Dr. James F. McDonald is a retired elementary school principal who lives in Dundas, ON.
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