Coffee table books can only hint at how gorgeous the Scottish Highlands really are. To be enveloped on all sides by crags, lochs and mountain flowers while breathing in cool fresh summer air cannot be replicated in any media.
As mountain ranges go, the Scottish Highlands are not very high. None of its mountains top more than 4409 ft (1344m). In contrast Mt. Mitchell in the southern Appalachians is 6,684 feet (2,037m). Denali in Alaska is 20,320 feet (6,194m) and Everest in Nepal is 29,029 (8,848m).
Yet because of its northern location and ferocity of its weather, the Scottish Highlands is a center for training Everest-bound mountaineers. When Estelle and I climbed Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the Scottish Highlands, we had no goals beyond just getting up the mountain on a warm summer day.
We checked in at a B&B in nearby Fort William, packed up food, water and extra clothing in case Scotland’s notoriously fickle weather gave us a nasty surprise. Our B&B host was friendly in the impersonal way of a professional innkeeper and did not ask where we were off to.
We walked the short distance to the beginning of the Pony Track, the trail chosen by most tourists as it involves no technical climbing skills, just endurance and common sense when approaching the tricky final ascent to the summit. We signed in at the base and hit the trail.
We hiked steadily upward and the rugged beauty surrounding us banished the worst of our growing exhaustion.
We ascended through a cloud bank as we approached the summit, slowing down as the mists obscured the trail. Walking off a Scottish cliff in the fog was definitely not in our plan. Upon emerging from the cloud we could see the summit and its cairn a short distance ahead. All about us were the neighboring peaks interspersed with lochs and steep valleys.
It was now mid-afternoon and as clouds gathered around the other peaks we could see soft glowing lights scattered through them. It was the sun reflecting off of the lochs and shining through the clouds. We fell silent at what was the most beautiful natural sights either of us had ever seen. Beethoven began playing in my head and for a lifelong atheist this was a truly spiritual moment.
We had to get off the mountain before darkness fell and the descent seemed surprisingly swift, perhaps because our minds were still reeling from the gallery of light and color we had just experienced. When we reached the road back to Fort William, shadows were growing long and our feet were weary.
We knocked on the door of our B&B and our host let us in. In the reserved polite way of a B&B professional, he asked what we had seen that day. I told him we had climbed Ben Nevis. His reserve disappeared and changed to unabashed surprise. After giving us a stern warning that we should have told him of our plans, he explained that he was a member of the local mountain rescue team.
After assuring him that we had signed in at the base and signed out properly, he was all smiles and congratulated us. We were no longer just a couple of Yank tourists, we had passed a test. We were now friends. He invited us down to his den in the private part of his home. As he treated us to some excellent Scottish whiskey, he shared tales of the mountain’s power and beauty. We were no longer 2 Yanks and a Scot, we were 3 human beings in awe of this planet’s natural wonders.
As a young boy I was made aware of my Scottish ancestry in a general sort of way and had developed a certain version of what it meant to be Scottish-American. To have a Scottish heritage meant physical toughness, resistance to oppression, a respect for hard work and a love of poetry, song, and the natural world.
Scotland is a small country that has struggled for centuries to maintain its national identity in the face of foreign domination. It is not a wealthy land and the weather can be harsh and unforgiving. I have never donned a kilt and have no idea how to play the pipes, but the glowing lights of the lochs in the Scottish mists will stay with me for as long as I live.