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A leisurely four-day trip in the Scottish highlands.

Reason for visiting the Highlands of Scotland aren't the same as for most of the rest of Europe. You don't come for Highland food, night life, monuments, weather, or shopping (the need for kilts and tartan neckties is finite.)

What the Highlands can offer is relaxation. The narrow roads discourage overdoing, and no particular scenic wonder demands it, so there's no reason to cram too much into your trip. The 300-mile loop drive through the Western Higlands mapped on page 89 took four leisurely days, including a couple of half-days for walks. It could easily have stretched to a week.

From a car, the ancient mountains at these bleak siberian latitudes begin to look repetitious--dun-colored in the gloom, gray-green in the sun. They're like a tweed jacket that appears to be only one color, but at close range shows flecks of yellow, red, orange, and violet. "The truth is," writes W.H. Murray in The Companion Guide to the West Highlands of Scotland, "no bit of Highland country will ever be known until a man walks on it and walks far."

Weather also slows you down. Even in the driest period, mid-May to late June, expect rain. When it hits, you can put on a slicker and walk out to the coast (where it rains less) and watch Atlantic combers crash across the reefs. Then back to tea, sweets, and an easy chair to read a hair-raising history of the gory ancestors of today's pink-cheeked, hospitable Scots.

Perhaps the most important walker's caution is to prepare for sudden shifts of weather. Mists and rain blow in quickly off the Atlantic. Even in good weather, pack rain gear and extra food.

Tennis shoes don't work well on boggy ground or gravelly slopes, and hiking boots take up too much room in a suitcase. We compromised by bringing sport shoes with tightly woven uppers and rubber-cleated soles, then found inexpensive rain wear there.

Scotland doesn't have the efficient footpath system of England. Hikers travel on little-used single-track roads or across private land.

Two Highland plusses are the low elevations (not much above 3,500 feet) and daylight that lasts, in midsummer, until 10 p.m. The local scourge is the tiny midge. You can purchase repellent, but even so wear a long-sleeved shirt. After mid-August and into winter, check whether hunting is permitted where you plan to walk. The best maps for hikers, Ordnance Survey maps, are available in bookstores and even area groceries; they are similar to U.S. Geological Survey topo sheets.

If you'd like to join a ranger-led hike, several leave from these National Trust for Scotland sites: Balmacara near Plockton; Inverewe Garden; Kintail and Morvich, 16 miles east of Kyle of Lochalsh; and Torridon, 9 miles southwest of Kinlochewe. Write to the trust, 5 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh EH2 4DU; or call 031-226-5922.

In spite of some very long names, Highland towns are little more than settlements, and the parkland headquarters is just a single building with a few parked cars. Many of the hotels are seasonal, in starkly sited white or stone buildings; reserve at least a day or two in advance during the summer. Bed-and-breakfasts are more numerous, cost about $15 per night per couple, and serve a serious, meaty morning repast at 8. You'll probably be hungry, since the last dinners in the region usually appear around 7:30. Cheese, fruit, and biscuits from the grocery store will do for lunch.

Here are some highlights of an itinerary starting in Inverness, the area's largest town. You should reserve a car ahead.

It's 14 miles to Beauly for crafts and clothes shopping. Just as you approach the town, a contemporary building on the left houses the Highland Craftpoint. Nothing displayed here is for sale, but catalogs can put you in touch with retail outlets or perhaps directly with the crafts-people themselves. Last year ceramics were featured; this summer the focus will be on woodworking. Hours are 10 to 5 weekdays.

In town, look for Campbell and Company, a tweed house that offers the best selection of tartans, cashmere, coats, and jackets you'll find along the route. Our purchases arrived in California, correctly altered, less than a month after ordering. About 30 miles farther is Corrieshalloch

Gorge. Near the road and from a suspension bridge across the 200-foot-deep gorge, you can admire the Falls of Measach. Ferns and Dwarf trees cling to crevices in the gorge's dark schist. Mountain ash, birch, larch, and other deciduous trees are a pleasant change from the barren hills and single-species reforestation you see in many other places. For best views, take the path on the right bank.

It's another 40 miles to Inverewe Garden, a 2,000-acre woodland garden where subtropicals can grow at latitude 58 (it's north of Moscow), thanks to the Gulf Stream and windbreak plantings. Planted more than a century ago by Osgood Mackenzie, Tasmanian tree ferns and bamboo thrive here, among some of the largest rhododenrons you will ever see. Hours are 9 a.m. to a half-hour before dusk. Cost is about $1.50 for adults, half as much for children. In dry weather, this could easily be a day's stop.

Into the mountains. From the coast, the road heads into what is considered to be the most scenic stretch of mountains in the Western Highlands. First there's Loch Maree--mountain-rimmed and one of the best-known spots to catch seagoing trout (July to mid-October) and salmon (April and loch, the majority handled by Loch Maree Hotel; call 044-589-200.

On the south shore is Beinn Eighe, a nature reserve set aside to preserve a remnant of the once-vast Caledonian Forest. Just before the town of Kinlochewe, a mile-long nature trail heads to a logroofed shelter open to the loch 500 feet below. Or climb a cairn-marked path 1,500 feet up to the lake-dimpled summit before a pebble-slippery descent (a total of 2-1/2 miles; allow a couple of hours).

Through steep-walled glens, continue by car for 37 miles through Torridon to

Plockton. a string of several dozen white houses is beautifully sited around outer Loch Carron, with hotels, restaurants, and bed-and-breakfast inns that appeal to artists and sailboaters. It's a more restful stop than Kyle of Lochalsh 5 miles beyond. From that busy gateway, it's a 5-minute ferry ride to the Isle of Skye.

a castle stop. Near Dornie, 10 miles from Kyle, you'll spot the Castle of Eilean Donan whose real estate ad, if the property were for sale, would proclaim "LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION." It is on an island connected by causeway to the mainland where three lochs meet. You can tour the interior. As you leave, turn uphill at the road for Keppoch Hill marked Carrbrae View Point. This climbs above the castle, then rejoins A87 several narrow miles later.

You reach Fort Augustus in 60 miles. To return to Inverness, take the less touristed road on the east side of Loch Ness.

For more details on hiking and lodgings, write to the British Tourist Authority, 612 S. Flower St., Los Angeles 90017.
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Sunset
Date:Apr 1, 1985
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