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LOCH & LEARN; Victoria McMahon surprises herself and takes a great holiday in the wilds of Scotland IT'S SCOT PLENTY FOR TOURISTS.

Byline: Victoria McMahon

SCOTLAND for a summer holiday? Sun seekers may laugh at the prospect.

But after years of talking about crossing the Irish Sea to explore the country's rich history and stunning scenery - we decided to bite the bullet.

Our first stop was Loch Lomond - the 24-mile-long stretch of freshwater -that straddles the Highlands border.

This shimmering beauty and its surrounding undulating mountains come under the protection of The Trossachs National Park in a bid to protect and conserve them for future generations.

It is a walker's and hiker's paradise that offers beautiful views over Loch Lomond and its dozens of scattered islands as a rich reward for aching limbs.

The west side of the loch has long been a popular base for visitors to set off to explore. The lesser developed east side retains a tucked-away authentic charm, although it still gets its fair share of international visitors, with word of mouth spreading about this hidden gem.

But it does gives you a taste of discovering something a little bit special off the more trodden tourist route.

The village of Balmaha hugging the edge of the loch is a perfect example. Arriving at the cosy family run Oak Tree Inn a sign declared "Muddy boots welcome". It was going to be our kind of place.

Settling into our comfortable cottage room with uninterrupted views of the loch just a few hundred feet away from our doorstep the stresses of the daily grind slipped away. Our stomachs filled with lip-smacking hearty grub from the Oak's Tree's dining room we were ready to tackle a sliver of the National Park's terrain.

Another plus to our location was the Balmaha's visitor centre just yards away. Their informative walking tours are a great way to get a feel of the area. Historic Inchcailloch island is also only a five-minute boat journey away.

But even if you're not a walker there's plenty to do and see around the loch. There is boat hire in abundance with coves around nearly every corner packed with bobbing vessels begging for a new skipper for the day.

Water-bus tours give great a vantage point for enjoying the wildlife, as well as taking you all over the loch including stopping off at the picturesque Luss, where Take The Highroad was filmed.

That TV soap may have put the Highlands on the map many moons ago but Scotland - the land of myths and legends - is now being introduced to the younger generation through Disney's blockbuster Brave.

The Scottish are hoping the adventure animation, voiced by comic Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson, will do for them what Riverdance did for the Irish.

And with film critics and audiences already giving it the thumbs up it's fast becoming an international hit. And when we visited the Duncryne horse riding school the genuine excitement about the movie was unmistakable.

Owner Janette Doyle is getting into the spirit by running special Brave events and packages, involving horseriding and archery, throughout August.

But for us novices horse riding in medieval garb was galloping before we could even canter so it was a gentle hack under Janette's tutelage.

And despite my travel buddy looking more uncomfortable rider than knight in shining armour it was a great way to see the countryside.

Saddle sore we left idyllic Loch Lomond behind as we drove north taking in the magical scenery of Glencoe.

It is little wonder Brave film-makers were so enchanted and inspired with its spectacular wilderness and sweeping mountainous terrain.

Its rugged beauty is truly breathtaking but scratch below its surface and you'll find a bloody history.

In 1692 it was the scene of a mass slaughter of Scots by English soldiers at the Massacre of Glencoe.

Snaking up the west coast we stopped off at the iconic Eilean Donan Castle before reaching our destination of the Isle of Skye.

The evening sun shone as a warm welcome on our arrival across the bridge. It was a fitting omen for things to come. The sunny weather coupled with the TURN TO PAGE 45

FROM PAGE 43 bewitching island's scenery and warm hospitality from its people was an intoxicating mix.

Arriving at Bosville Hotel at the island's colourful harbour town of Portree we were delighted to be told we had been upgraded to their newly refurbished luxury cottage.

I could say this was a home away from home but it's even nicer than my humble abode.

After a hard day's sight-seeing soaking in a roll top tub watching a massive flat screen TV is one of life's pleasures. ys sight seeing op tub e ne A must-see on Skye - and a highlight of our trip - was a visit to impressive Dunvegan Castle.

It has been ancestral home for the r the Chiefs of Clan MacLeod for the past 800 years. cLeod Built on a rocky outcrop on the shores of Loch Dunvegan it's the country's longest continuously inhabited castle, with its current chief Hugh MacLeod often in residence.

Visitors come in their droves and it's also a spectacular setting for weddings. It's not hard to see why.

It's overflowing in rich heritage that is brought to life by its local guides who share their own stories of the castle of its clan chiefs.

Our guide Catherine, a Ou O r gu g ide Catherine, a Skye native, was a wealth of information as she showed us the castle's grandeur and more sinister dungeon, which thankfully hasn't been used in many years.

The story behind the clan's famous fairy flag that has helped save the fate of the MacLeods is typical of mythical Scotland.

We also got a chance to enjoy getting up close and personal with the island's seal colonies.

Boat trips leave from within Dunvegan castle's grounds to come within a whisker of the basking seals dotted around the rocks.

Dunvegan to t com wh w is ba bar a Then it was off to Clan Donald Centre in the tC s tr som axe-t Desp south of island to try our hands at some archery and axe-throwing. Despite top tips from our instructor Matt in how to hit gold my initial success with the bow and arrow ended up as a fluke.

But this is where my travel buddy excelled. He was like a kid in the candy shop, taking a modest delight in giving our instructor a run for his money in the activities.

His performance was the stuff that Scottish legends are made of - or so he keeps telling me.

Breathtaking Scotland does plenty to make you smile.

For those sceptical sun seekers Scotland has had the last laugh.

get thereWe travelled with P&O Ferries which operate 10 sailings per day from Larne to Cairnryan and Troon with online prices from EUR113.

For more information on all sailings and the latest P&O offers, visit www.poferries.com Accommodation The Oak Tree Inn, Balmaha, Loch Lomondwww.oak-tree-inn.co.uk The Bossville Hotel, Portree, Isle of Skye www.bosvillehotel.co.uk Rudha-Na-Craige guest house, Inveraray, Argyll www.rudha-na-craige.com Activities Duncryne Horse Riding Centre, Gartocharn, Loch LomondContact 01389 830425 Dunvegan Castle -seat of Clan MacLeod www.dunvegancastle.com Clan Donald Centre, Armadale, Isle of Skye www.clandonald.com For more information on the Brave movie and Scotland visit www.visitscotland.com/brave

FROM PAGE 43 bewitching island's [...]

CAPTION(S):

BEAUTY: The shores of Loch Lomond CHARM: Bosville HISTORIC: Dunvegan Castle, Isle Of Skye
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 18, 2012
Words:1240
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