Awaken to the sound of a strolling bagpipe player beneath your window, the same wake-up call that roused King Edward III, Rudyard Kipling, the Rockefellers, and Madonna on her wedding day. So begins an enchanting day at Andrew Carnegie’s Skibo Castle, originally christened Schytherbolle in the 10th century by Celtic inhabitants, who believed it to be a gift from Gaelic fairies.
When Carnegie returned to his homeland after making his millions in America as one of the world’s most successful industrialists, he was so taken by this stunning site, he called it “heaven on earth.” Carnegie would spend a stunning amount to build a baronial mansion on the ruins of the crumbling castle, creating a singularly magnificent “home at last.”
Recently purchased by an American entrepreneur, Skibo now opens its baronial doors to privileged club members and to outside guests who can live like steel tycoons in a nostalgic ambience of authentic 19th-century furnishings, a gracious tartan-kilted staff, and such amusing traditions as being led into the enormous candlelit dining hall by a lone piper in full dress. The estate’s 7,500 acres teem with game and wild fowl, and there’s a private, award-winning 18-hole waterfront golf course.
Blazing with brightly colored tartans and ringing with the sound of bagpipes and ancient clans dancing and celebrating all things Scottish, these unique summer sporting events have their roots in the Middle Ages. Begun as county fairs for the exchange of goods and news, they provided clan chiefs the chance to witness the physical prowess of the area’s most promising young lads. Of the nation’s forty-some annual gatherings, those at Braemar are the most renowned.
Queen Elizabeth usually pops in from nearby Balmoral Castle to cheer on the kilted Scotsmen. A breed of gigantic men called the “Heavies” engage in “throwing the hammer”, “putting the stone,” and the gathering’s prime event, “tossing the caber”—a 20-foot tree trunk weighing over 130 pounds. There are all kinds of Highlands dancing and traditional music, and a bit of whisky to help the celebrations along.
Just as true Champagne can come only from the Champagne region in France, you must go to Scotland to find authentic Scotch whisky (spelled without the “e”) on its native soil. The country boasts more than one “Whisky Trail,” and a number of Lowland distilleries are an easy day trip southeast of Edinburgh. But the Highlands are the most celebrated home of Scotland’s legendary “spirits,” the malt whiskies (from the Gaelic uisge heatha, or water of life) that have been produced in this region for centuries.
A signposted route through the scenic eastern (Grampian) Highlands—the whisky-making capital of the Western world—leads the traveler to some of the most memorable spots at which to discover “the mystery of the malt.” Of the seven or eight world-famous distilleries located on this route, must-sees include Glenlivet (in Glenlivet) and Glenfiddich (in Dufftown), with Cardhu (in Archiestown) thrown in for good measure. Of the eighty-odd licensed singlemalt distilleries in Scotland, these are some of the premier.
Although the aforementioned all come from the secluded glens of the Spey Valley (where dozens of smaller and lesser-known distilleries make tempting detours), these world-acclaimed single malts all taste remarkably different, as a visit to a number of distilleries will prove.
Water is key, and so is the quality of grain (barley) and the amount of peat used in the fire. Blended Scotch whisky, on the other hand, is the marriage of up to sixty single malts, and promises an identical character bottle after bottle. After a few wee drams of this water of life, designated passengers might feel the distinction between one amber elixir of happiness and the next getting a little cloudy.
A newish bridge has diluted some of its mystique and otherworldliness, but the Isle of Skye still remains a land apart in history and fantasy. The largest of the Inner Hebrides (50 miles long and from 3 to 25 miles wide), and one of the closest to the mainland, Skye is renowned for its unforgettable landscapes and as the hiding place for Scottish hero Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746 after the infamous mainland defeat of his 5,000 Highlanders by the English Duke of Cumberland.
The wet and windy Hebrides, both Inner and Outer, have long been associated with tweeds, woolens, single-malt whiskies, edge-of-the world landscapes-—the very spirit of Scotland.
Getting to Skye is half the fun when you follow the scenic 45-mile “Road to the Isles” from Fort William to Mallaig on Scotland’s western coast, one of the main ferry ports for Skye. Tap deeper into the Scottish soul and linger a few days as (paying) houseguests at the family-owned and -managed Kinloch Lodge in the beautiful southern comer of the island. Built in 1680 as a hunting lodge for the Macdonald family, it is the elegant but unpretentiously comfortable home of Lord Macdonald, high chief of the Donald clan, his wife, Claire, and their four children.
Lady Macdonald cheerfully confesses to never having had a cooking lesson in her life, but that hasn’t stopped her from writing a dozen cookbooks and building a reputation as one of the leading authorities on Scottish cooking. Everything served at Kinloch is either from the island or the waters that surround it. Balmy weather and fertile land have made this waterfront area the Garden of Skye.
The drama of Scotland’s Hebrides (“islands at the edge of the sea”), created by earthquakes, volcanoes, and retreating glaciers, is topped only by the floating-country-manor luxury of the Hebridean Princess. This romantic five-star vessel carrying just fifty very cosseted passengers (with a crew of thirty-eight), glides through the 500-island archipelago, still relatively untrammeled by tourism, off the western coast of Scotland.
The atmosphere of a house party prevails, with the terribly respectable guests lounging in the handsome chintz-draped cabins (some with private balconies), dining on excellent smoked salmon and Champagne (with eighteen varieties of Scotch whisky for sampling), and making daily calls on remote towns and little-visited lochs. Small tenders bring passengers ashore to ancient distilleries for a wee dram, a bracing ride on the ship’s bicycles, or exhilarating treks through nature reserves without another soul in sight. One day may promise a visit to a long-abandoned castle sitting atop a lonely bluff or nothing more intense than an afternoon’s stroll on deserted beaches or antiques-store hopping in a somnolent, waterfront town.
Rum, Mull, Colonsay, Staffa, Barra, Lewis—for those not familiar with the powerful, sometimes bleak, and often eerie beauty of the Hebrides Islands, a “Hebridean Sampler” is an enchanting temptation, from the moment the bagpiper welcomes guests on board through to the wafting strains of Mendelssohns majestic “Hebrides Overture” that warm the blanketed, sunset-gazing passengers as they linger on the deck.
Some 600 castles dot the the Scottish countryside, with the highest concentration in the rugged Grampian Highlands, named for the hill range that bisects it. Many of these castles are dramatic ruins, such as Slains, said to have inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula, and Dunnottar, where Zeffirelli chose to film Hamlet. (The Bard himself staged Macbeth’s murder of Duncan in Castle Cawdor—home of the thane, or clan chief— northeast of Inverness, unofficial capital of the Highlands.) Others are beautifully restored, owner-occupied stately homes, such as Drum, Crathes, and Fyvie. Balmoral Castle, “this dear paradise” of Queen Victoria, is still the private summer residence of the British sovereign (with restricted visiting hours for both castle and gardens as a result).
An eleven-castle circuit through the Grampians linked by blue and white signposts make up the Castle Trail, historic properties owned by the National Trust for Scotland (overnight accommodations can be arranged at privately owned castle/hotels in the area). Following the Dee, Don, or Spey Rivers (think excellent salmon and trout fishing), it is an excursion that blends beautifully (excuse the pun) with visits to the dozens of single-malt-whisky distilleries. More than half of the country’s distilleries are in this area—the region’s other claim to fame.
Quaint rural accommodations are not hard to come by, but few match Cawdor Cottages for history and style. Set within the 50-square-mile estate belonging to 600-year-old Cawdor Castle, five cottages have been done up in flawless taste by Lady Cawdor, a former fashion magazine editor.
A must-visit on the cathedral city circuit, ancient York is surrounded by 3 miles of beautifully restored medieval walls built on Roman foundations; its walltop footpath is one of England’s finest pleasures. Within lies an architecture-rich city that is a joy for strollers, with all paths leading to its famous showpiece cathedral, the Minster. A wonder of Gothic architecture, it is the largest medieval cathedral in Great Britain and the largest north of the Alps: a breath-sapping climb up the central tower’s spiral 275-step staircase provides the chance to appreciate the scale of this massive building (offset by views of the Yorkshire Moors beyond) and the genius of the buttresses that hold it up—a sophisticated engineering feat completed before America was even “discovered.”
The present cathedral was begun in 1220 on a site where previous cathedrals and churches had stood, possibly as far back as 627. It is famous for its 128 intricate stained-glass windows, some of which date back to the Minster’s earliest days as do the elaborately carved Choir Screen and the rich interior of the Chapter House. Churches, like castles, represented power and importance (the archbishop of York is second only to the archbishop of Canterbury in the hierarchy of the Church of England), but even prior to the Minster’s construction, York was an important location.
There was a major Viking settlement here from 867 and some streets still retain their Danish names; ruins dating to the 10th century are at the center of the extremely popular Jorvik Viking Center (Jorvik was the Nordic name for the city) in Coppergate, bringing you back to the year A.D. 975, long before the Minster’s first block was laid.
A pilgrimage to the courses where the game of golf was invented provides golf lovers with dozens of choices. Many of the links here are undisputedly some of the finest on earth. Officially recorded since 1552, golf is believed to have been a diversion for the bored Scottish aristocracy as early as the 14th century. You’ll feel like aristocracy yourself at a handful of storied hotels whose raison d’etre is to indulge guests with as much nonpareil golf as the long hours of daylight will permit—and luxury apres-golf accommodations to boot.
The Old Course at St. Andrews is the world’s most legendary temple of golf, which explains why you sometimes need to reserve tee times up to a year in advance. An elegant Edwardian country house, Greywails Hotel, exudes the warmth of a private home—one fortunate enough to overlook the fabled Muirfield Course. It’s the world’s oldest golf course, and visitors are permitted, with a little help from the Greywalls’s concierge. Gleneagles, whose Queen’s and King’s courses are the oldest of five, is framed by remarkable scenery.
The magnificently situated Turnberry Hotel faces out to sea and has its own lighthouse; it has hosted the British Open three times on its two famous courses on the untamed Scottish coast. Neophytes at Carnoustie call its course treacherous, but world champions call it the best in Britain. At Royal Troon, only men can comment on its old course; the club is so steeped in tradition that women are still not allowed to play it. Anyone can try their hand at Royal Dornach. At just 6 degrees short of the Arctic Circle, it is the most northerly of the world’s great golf courses, though with a balmy climate thanks to the Gulf Stream. The list goes on and on—there are well over
500 courses in Scotland—but why not start at the top?
Although best known today as the location for the BBC’s 1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Castle Howard has been respected for centuries as one of the most colossal privately owned palaces in the British Isles. This early 18th-century residence (not really a castle, though sitting on the former site of one) holds court amid its own grandiose 1,000-acre parkland and gardens.
It’s still lived in by the Howard family, whose ancestors saw in the then inexperienced architect Sir John Vanbrugh the talent that would later secure him the commission to create the lavish Blenheim Palace near Oxford. The main body of Castle Howard was completed in 1715, including its signature gilt Great Hall that rises 70 feet from floor to dome. The 160-foot aptly named Long Gallery is the castle’s other highlight, lined with a large number of portraits of the Howard line by Holbein and others. Unless you’re a relation, you won’t be spending the night here.
But you can happily unpack your bags at the handsome, nearby Middlethorpe Hall. Commissioned in 1699, the same year as Castle Howard, it has recently been converted into what most hold to be the grandest country hotel in northern England. Surrounded by 26 impeccable acres that border York’s famous racecourse, the elegant William Ill-style hotel with its top-ranked restaurant is the perfect jumping-off point for a tour of Yorkshire’s dales and moors. Explore the area’s wealth of national parks and the countryside that inspired Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte and her sisters hailed from nearby Haworth, now a revered literary site of pilgrimage).
Stonehenge can still be the magical, mystical, mysterious kind of place it was probably meant to be—but only if you catch it between tour bus caravans. No one knows who built Stonehenge or why (far-fetched theories credit aliens from outer space, King Arthur, Merlin and the ancient people of Atlantis) although it is pretty certain this stunning collection of artfully placed rocks was used for rituals or ceremonies pertaining to the sun.
The massive trilithons—two upright stones with a cross lintel on top—were assembled some 4,000 years ago. Some of the standing stones weigh up to 50 tons—it is estimated that to drag each one into position took over 1,000 men. Scholars disagree about where the stones came from (some say southern Wales) and how they got to the windswept Salisbury Plain. In the 17th century, the widely held view that the circle was somehow connected to the Celtic druids took hold and has never died, even though it has since been proven that the site predates the Iron Age priestly cult by at least 1,500 years and probably more.
Researchers believe the stones were to be put together in three distinct stages (two of which were never completed), in alignments made possible by sophisticated builders with a knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, and engineering unparalleled anywhere in Europe at that time. It was probably intended as a solar or lunar calendar, among other things; today, thousands gravitate here for the summer solstice.