Highland fling

Have you heard the one about...? Victoria Mitchell takes a humorous guided tour of the Highlands.

What exactly does a Scotsman wear under his kilt? How big is the Loch Ness Monster? And will we see the haggis running around?

These are some of the typical questions posed by foreign visitors to Scotland – attracted by Edinburgh's festivals, world-famous golf resorts and the excellent shopping emerging in the heart of Glasgow.

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All these things, of course, short-break visitors can fix for themselves. But to explore the miles of rugged countryside outside those cities, and appreciate the stunning scenery and history of regions such as the Highlands, they usually need expert help. That's why there's Rabbie's Trail Burners – Mercedes mini-coaches driven by guides who enliven the commentary with a string of tales and humorous asides.

Our bus, departing from Glasgow, mixed visitors from the US, Germany, Hungary, Japan and India, but we soon shared a smile. Maybe humour is more international than we think? We headed north on twisting roads along the banks of Loch Lomond. Our driver and tour guide, Gilbert, supplied a history of the area. After stopping for some photos of the loch, which is surrounded by hills and forests, we began crossing the ancient natural fault line that runs across Scotland.

We continued our journey into the majestic Highlands – where scenery can change quickly and dramatically. This was once a dangerous frontier, fought over by fiercely territorial Highland clans such as the MacGregors, made famous by the folk hero and outlaw, Rob Roy MacGregor. Foreign tourists on the trip gasped as we wound our way through the glen, hanging on the driver's every word as we learned about Mr MacGregor and his fate.

Bagpipe music in the background raised eyebrows and smiles. There was no mistaking we were in Scotland. Travelling north through Breadalbane, which means the High Country, we climbed towards desolate Rannoch Moor. At more than 1,000ft, covered by heather and peat-bogs and dotted with dozens of pretty lochs, it is an untamed yet picturesque landscape.

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And it contrasted with the spectacular mountain scenery as we passed the peak of Buachaille Etive Mor and down into Scotland's most famous valley, Glencoe. With its dramatic cliff faces and steep slopes, Glencoe is one of the most spectacular and beautiful parts of the country – with a bloody history since a massacre in 1692. On orders from King William, Scottish soldiers led by Captain Robert Campbell, slaughtered 38 men, women and children of the Macdonald clan. The Highlands were never the

same again.

In Fort William – to the delight of young American girls on our tour – we got our first sighting of kilts. Our next destination was made famous by a monster.

No-one knows for sure if Nessie actually exists, but there have been many sightings, some legendary, and even a grainy photograph.

At 23 miles long and more than 700ft deep, Loch Ness is the largest loch by volume in Scotland and contains more water than every lake in England and Wales put together. If you want to search for the monster or simply take in the scenery, the best way is to do a one-hour cruise.

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You have the option of stopping at the ruins of Urquhart Castle, once one of Scotland's largest. Its remains include a tower house with splendid views of the loch and Great Glen.

Urquhart witnessed considerable conflict throughout its 500 years as a medieval fortress. The visitor centre is an intriguing insight into castle life over the centuries. The pretty village of Drumnadrochit sits on the west shore of the loch and is a popular base. There is no shortage of bed-and-breakfasts and guest houses. There are also several hotels overlooking the loch.

From Loch Ness, we headed south again, stopping briefly in Spean Bridge before heading through the mountains of the Cairngorms National Park. Our route took us alongside Loch Laggan, the setting for the BBC series, Monarch of the Glen, over the Drumochter Pass at 1,500ft above sea level and past 13th-century Blair Castle, the ancestral home of the Duke of Atholl. Last stop was the pretty resort town of Pitlochry.

After fish and chips without a fried Mars Bar in sight, we headed back to Glasgow – all of us thanking Rabbie for tucking so much into such a short time.


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Victoria Mitchell was a guest of Rabbie's Trail Burners, which offers award-winning small-group tours around Scotland and northern England. Her visit to Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands is either a one-day whistlestop (36) or two-day tour (65-80) from Glasgow. Guests pay extra for accommodation – from B&Bs to luxury hotels – and meals. Rabbie's Trail Burners: 0131 226 3133 and visit www.rabbies.com

Victoria stayed at stylish boutique Carlton George Hotel in central Glasgow, with doubles from 89. Breakfast costs an extra 14.

Hotel reservations: call 0141 353 6373 and visit www.carltonhotels.co.uk/george

YP MAG 26/6/10