Of Celts and Clans – Scotland

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This week (Jan. 25) marked Robbie Burns Day, a Scottish holiday named after the 18th century poet and writer, Robert Burns. Here, Vivian Vassos follows in the footsteps of The Bard

The mist hangs heavy in the atmosphere; a light spray of rain makes for a moody entry to a winding, upward path. A sudden gust carries a sound – a sound that’s at once beautiful and sad, beckoning you onward. It’s bagpipes, music that floats on the air, rests on the mist and sprinkles down on your ears before you ever see its player.

At Ledard Farm, Kinlochard, near Scotland’s Trossachs National Park and the Loch Ard Forest due north of Glasgow, a guest is piped in, greeted by an ages-old tradition that Fergus Wood, the farm’s director, insists is the only way to arrive. When the piper comes into view, he strikes a formidable figure: Kilted in the greens, oranges and yellows of his clan and yet a camouflage to the autumnal colours around him on this lush fall day. His tam sits on his brow at a jaunty angle, his instrument rests easily in the crook of his arm, the colour in his cheeks could be the result of his hardy playing, the hardy weather – or both. He stops and salutes his welcome.

RELATED: Of Celts and Clans – Ireland

He’s Wood’s son, Gregor, and he’s near as masterly a host as is his Da. The two work the sheep farm and, in their spare time, their labour of love is to share the history of this mystical part of Scotland, just down the way from the banks of Loch Lomond. “To get under the skin of Scotland” is how Fergus describes he wants visitors to feel.

Music, of course, is one way to it. Gregor, a former Royal Military Policeman, plays the Great Highland and Small Scottish bagpipes, while Fergus is a singer in the Kinlochard Ceilidh Band, which specializes in Scottish dance tunes. Traditional tunes that go back 700 years, Fergus says, still sung by clans and chieftains; his own clan 13 generations deep, passing along the songs to the next. The pipes go back at least as far. Into the mix, throw Gregor’s interest in Highland Clan weaponry and a passion for reciting Robbie Burns’ poetry – brilliantly, we might add – and it’s quite easy to feel like you’ve got Scotland under your skin. In the barn, we break bread; if these walls could talk, they’d tell us they were sprung in 1604.

This is MacGregor country, and these the halls of Rob Roy. In fact, this Scottish Robin Hood came of age here in this very barn, in 1689 when, at the age of 18, he took up arms alongside his father and set out against the English in the Battle of Killicrankie. Some 400 years earlier, it was William Wallace, in neighbouring Stirling, who defended the area from the English invaders. Some of the weapons from Wallace’s and MacGregor’s time still adorn the walls here but, now, rather than a staging point for plotting Jacobite uprisings and getting set for battle, the barn is used for dining. Large groups gather to hear Gregor’s Burns presentation, a few songs from father and son and to feast on local cuisine, including Cock-a-Leekie soup, hot smoked salmon with Glengoyne Whisky Sauce and “Best End of Lamb” from Ledard Farm. If these walls could talk, they’d say delicious.

Scotland is not Scotland without its whisky (delicious in its own right). And there’s no better way to start off the day off the banks of Loch Lomond than with a wee dram of the golden elixir. Yes, morning, let’s say, about 10:30 a.m. Apparently, the palate is fresher then and will allow for a tasting experience that provides all the subtle nuances of a good whisky. At Glengoyne, where the distilling of malted barley, water and yeast is said to be the slowest in Scotland, where an oak cask can take six years just to be prepared for the liquid to come, the malted whisky is lovely. It rolls onto the tongue like amber honey, mingling flavours the barley has picked up from the oak and sherry casks without a trace of sulphur. Ten generations of whisky makers have inhabited this distillery, and the current crop of creators and their 10-, 12-, 15-, 18- and 21-year old single malts would make the ghosts of Glengoyne proud.

The distillery is a hidden gem, a local specialty that qualifies as one of Trafalgar’s Insider Experiences. Another is the travel ’s Be My Guest concept, where a tour group is hosted in a private home or, in this case, Wood’s working farm, part of it’s Scottish Highlands, Islands and Cities guided vacation itinerary, and allows the traveller to get up close and personal with the local lifestyle. “We know through research and feedback from our guests that they are looking for deeper experiences and opportunities to interact with locals,” says Liesa Bissett, Trafalgar product manager. “They want to taste local food, discover crafts, so we keep searching for more meaningful experiences, which are often the highlight of a guest’s vacation.”

And, like Wood reinventing his day job as a farmer into one where he could share his love of tradition, Trafalgar revamped its own travel mission in 2009. “We are constantly looking to reinvent ourselves,” says Bissett, “and to change people’s perceptions of coach travel.” Discovering like-minded travellers from all over the globe – with whom you share these experiences – is just one way the company is changing that “bus tour” perception.

On this trip, the coach took us from Edinburgh to the banks of Loch Lomond and back, with plenty of planned (spot of tea at a country pub, anyone?) and impromptu stops in between (feel like scaling what’s left of Hadrian’s Wall? Why not! Join a singing competition to win a bottle whisky? Count us in!). There’s a spontaneity that only someone with a perennial back-stage pass – like the company’s travel directors who ride the coach – can provide. They have local experts, great restaurants and front-of-the-line access on speed dial and are also adept at reading the mood – in other words, keeping a coach-load of strangers engaged and bonded over many days. “It’s the power of numbers,” says Gavin Tollman, CEO of Trafalgar. “This group dynamic instils confidence, the courage to explore, learn and discover.”

The year 2014 could very well be Scotland’s year of self-discovery. It’s been designated year of the Homecoming, the Commonwealth Games take place in Glasgow in late July, while the bi-annual Europe versus U.S. Ryder Cup golf tourney tees off at Gleneagles near the end of September (it heads back to the U.S. in 2016). It’s also the commemoration of the 700th anniversary of the battle at Bannockburn, not far from Ledard Farm and Stirling Castle, where Robert the Bruce turned back King Edward II of England to cement his leadership of his people. Speaking of the English, in September, another tee-off: the Scottish people will vote on the question of independence from their big sister to the south. If Scotland chooses to go solo, it could put asunder the Act of Union, which dates back to 1706, possibly eliminating the term United Kingdom, where Scotland is currently one-third of the England-Scotland-Wales trio, from our geographical lexicon.

Every kingdom needs its castle, and in Edinburgh, the city wears its like a crown, high on a solidified lava rock, with Arthur’s Seat and the Queen’s official residence in Scotland, the Palace of Holyrood House, in its shadow (her hubby, Prince Philip, is the Duke of Edinburgh, after all). To this day, a royal company of archers guards the Queen when she’s at Holyrood, most often during her holidays at the end of June. Edinburgh castle sits atop an inactive volcano (it hasn’t blown for 30,000 years) on the Royal Mile, a steep slope lined with storied pubs, tartan shops and busking bagpipers. In its infancy, it was called Edwin’s town, but this was a city ahead of its time, even then. It was the world’s first grid system city and the Grassmarket neighbourhood directly below was the haunt of Robbie Burns. In modern times, a different scribe with a story to tell made her mark here: Nicholson’s café on Potter Road is where J.K. Rowling conjured up her boy wizard Harry.

About an hour away is Roslin, the town that Dan Brown made famous in his own blockbuster book, The DaVinci Code. Here, Rosslyn Chapel, the scene of the book’s climax, sits serenely, its stained-glass laden exterior, windows that were installed over a 20-year period beginning in 1867, is only a preview of its elaborate interior. The structure, however, is much older. It came to being in 1446, wrought by Sir William St. Clair, part of a group of collegiate churches built in the late 1400s. To say it is breathtaking in its ornate nature is an understatement. Nearly every surface, wall, column, is carved – painstaking work by artists and stonemasons, recounting myths, depicting Bible scenes or using mysterious symbolism (hello, Dan Brown) to tell the stories and shed light on the nobility of the day. From the birth of Christ to the Seven Deadly Sins, an angel with bagpipes to the curved apprentice column, it is a feast for the eyes.

Closer to the capital, moored at Leith about two miles from Edinburgh’s city centre, floats the Royal Yacht Britannia. Berthed here since it was decommissioned in 1997 and opened to the public in 1998, she is the last in a line of royal yachts, first commissioned in 1660. She was the floating vacation home of Her Majesty the Queen and her family, the place where Charles and Diana honeymooned (based on the size of the marriage bed, it’s no wonder things went off the rails – Scotland has made up for it, as Wills and Kate met at the University of St. Andrews).

Now, Britannia is a museum and plays host to royal watchers and history seekers, as well as being a place to take traditional afternoon tea. But if you’re on a Trafalgar trip, the invitation to dinner comes along with the package. And who wouldn’t want to dine like royalty?

Her Majesty may have something to say about the independence vote this coming September, but Scotland is, after all, nothing if not brave.

If You Go

Choose from eight itineraries from Trafalgar’s Europe & Britain 2014 program. Call 1-800-387-2680 or go to www.trafalgar.com; www.visitbritain.com.