A TRIP TO THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS

My heart’s in the highlands… …

because the whole world goes there, because here we party in a haunted vault, because here we lose all sense of perspective.

From the time I reached London, I was in two minds — to take a train, or fly to Edinburgh. A ride through the spectacular English countryside with its cottages, rolling hills, country lanes and coastal views would be a lot less stressful if you factor in the time spent when it comes to hanging around at the airport, I thought.

So here I was, on the train to Waverly from King’s Cross, London. It was noon and the weather was lazy. The train journey takes you through the historic cities of York, Newcastle and Berwickupon- Tweed, right into the centre of Edinburgh, one of the most loved cities of this world. Sheep grazing by the Scottish meadows was a sight to behold on this jaunt, as I realised that the landscape changed gradually and I couldn’t describe anything without using superlatives. Four hours into the journey, the coach came to a grinding halt at Waverly-Edinburgh.

A mist-like drizzle in the air accompanied me as I rummaged through the station area up to the Royal Mile, only to gift myself a mix of gorgeous scenery with a perfect glass of malt. This area has been the hub of life in Edinburgh for centuries and a walk along the historic street transports me to the footsteps of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and other famous Scottish personalities.

Emboldened by the whisky extravaganza, I was tempted to witness one of the most enduring attractions for tourists — the Edinburgh Castle — and Edinburgh does not disappoint. Home to the Scottish Crown jewels, the castle dominates the city skyline and is located at the top of the Royal Mile at the West end of Edinburgh Old Town. This historic fortress was built in the 12th century by King David I. Situated on a volcanic rock, the castle is the most visited tourist attraction in Scotland. The fortress is considered one of the most haunted places in this part of the world, with the centuries of wars and battles that it has defended and witnessed.

If you are on the hunt for ghosts, a short stagger on the castle area, past sundown, is perfect. Some eerie music, a faint sound of bagpipes far away, or an occasional tap on your shoulder will make you sense some presence of paranormal activity. I know I did.

Wait, it gets better. The hotbed of this unusual phenomenon is centred around the Royal Mile area, where a set of tunnels run directly underneath the castle. Discovered hundreds of years ago, the tunnels are the home to these sinister shadows lurking from the past. A few decades ago, in search of tangible evidence, a Scottish piper was sent down these tunnels to explore the underground world. He was commanded to play his pipes as he made his way through the tunnel, whilst a group of observers would follow on foot down the street to keep track of his progress. As time passed the sound of the pipes became faint and gradually faded. The piper couldn’t be traced after that and legend has it that the sound of his pipes can still be heard from beneath the castle. Many more apparitions haunt this ancient city, all too many to name.

The Scottish landscape is studded with haunted and dilapidated castles that stand as sullen witnesses to the centuries of conflict and bloodshed, and the ghosts are a part of that ancient folklore to this day. The ageold discords between the Highlanders and the Lowlanders, and the kings and queens continue to exist in this ethereal domain, so much so that Scotland earned the name of being the most haunted place in the world!People who come here in search of mystical experiences do not go back disheartened. And it is not just the castles that have accumulated their share of myths and legends. The story about the unexplained would remain incomplete without the mention of the legend of Nessie, the monster. And the next morning we were travelling out of the city, into the glorious Scottish Highlands, in search of just that — the Loch Ness monster.

We stopped enroute at the quaint town of Dunkeld, set next to the River Tay. This pristine Perthshire town has a well-kept main street dotted with colourful houses. I rewarded myself with some Highland venison sausages and a quiet stroll on the river bank. Next was our journey along the Caledonian Canal before arriving in Fort Augustus on the banks of legendary Loch Ness. Tourists from all over the world stop by this mysterious stretch of water for their share of monster hunt by boat or from the shores of the loch itself. As history connotes, Nessie, the aquatic beast living in Loch Ness, was last sighted by a British couple in 1933 and it was only after this that a popular interest in this cryptid exploded. Our engaging and well versed Scottish guide R Skelley was full of passion and knowledge and had uniquely mastered the art of storytelling. He did justice to his name — Skelley is Scottish for storyteller. One of the world’s most enduring mysteries, Nessie, who is said to have inhabited the Loch Ness area, is described to be an animal that probably is a leftover dinosaur that existed millions of years ago. This elusive monster is so intimately tied up with the Scottish tourist industry that no one today dares to pry into the facts too closely. The tourism industry around the Loch would fall apart without the enthusiasts walking around the lake with binoculars and gesticulating at the slightest ripples on the lake water. But I still wondered why, despite all these facts and researchers failing to gather any tangible evidence about the monster, so many people around the world believe in its existence even today. Probably because it’s impossible to prove a negative; there will always be an apprehension that Nessie really exists, and the sceptics will be proved wrong.

After a great day of travel across the Scottish Highlands and maybe, just maybe, sighting the monster on the Loch, we returned to Edinburgh early in the evening. And the happy time arrived to savour a couple of stiff drink and then a visit to The City of the Dead, Edinburgh’s best Ghost tour.Down into the lowest depths of Edinburgh, hundreds of people have claimed that they have been attacked by some supernatural entities during this walking tour. The tour is all about a spooky walk filled with excitement, horror and history. Here, one will come across Edinburgh’s weirdest stories and the wildest history.

From the uncanny Greyfriars Kirkyard, to the underground of the Old Town where thousands died of the plague, the rich history of Edinburgh is blotted with the dark, brutal and the mysterious. Earlier tortures and grisly deaths, stories of witches and public executions are reasons why these troubled souls remained trapped as spectres and never transformed to the after-life. Today their influence is felt by way of supernatural force all over the city.

It’s not all darn and doubtful, however. Contrary to all this, a recent UK wide survey revealed that Edinburgh tops the list in UK’s happiest cities. The green spaces, lively festivals and events, vibrant leisure and the cheerful people of this city validate the fact that this city is a happy place to be. Time and again, Edinburgh has proved to be better than London when it comes to the sheer quality of life. There are many reasons why living in Edinburgh ruins you for life. That’s because it is insanely beautiful, because it’s Christmas round the year and because it is a city you can never ever leave, even when you go back to where you came from. I could pitch a tent in Edinburgh forever.

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