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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Exploring the Scottish Highlands

Last week was Reading Week here at St. Andrews University, a lovely town on the east coast of Scotland famous for being “The Home of Golf.” I’m spending two semesters here at the University where I’m continuing my studies of Physics. I am really enjoying the university, but I was glad when Reading Week came along as it is a whole week off of lectures, a wonderful tradition in my mind! The week is nominally used for revising and catching up with your lectures, but most students, particularly the young ones, travel. This is what I chose to do, and on the 6th of November, I set out for Edinburgh where a five-day tour of the Highlands began.

Interestingly enough, our first stop was none other than the quaint little village of… St. Andrews. Here, we had about an hour to “see the sights.” A fellow St. Andrews student and I played tour guide and even sampled the pseudo-Scottish pseudo-delicacy: the deep fried Mars Bar. Surprisingly, it was tasty enough, and I found myself wishing that I had delayed trying it until I was about to leave so I couldn’t eat more than one of these heart attacks in a bag.

From St. Andrews we ventured north, up towards the Highlands. I’ve received many questions regarding the difference between the Highlands and the Lowlands, so I’ll take a moment and explain that here. Geographically, the two regions are divided by the Highland Fault Line or the Highland Boundary Fault. Looking at any map will show you this line without difficulty; it is where the mountains start. The “high” in “Highland” is derived from the elevation not the latitude, after all! Culturally, the Highlands and Lowlands are very different, due in part to the isolation that the mountains produce. The Lowlands have been more influenced my England and Europe. For example, the “traditional” clothes worn in the Lowlands would have been the same as the current fashions in Europe and particularly France. Only in the Highlands was the plaid worn. Now, of course, the kilt -- the modernization of the plaid -- is worn by Highlanders and Lowlanders alike, and that’s a good thing!

After a stop at Dunkeld to see the amazing cathedral and some very unique trees (The Duke of Atholl who owned the land fired the seeds of many different species of tree out of a cannon to disperse them) we headed on to Pitlochery where we spent our first night in the youth hostel there.

The next day we headed north again. Our first stop was at a place called the Queen’s View. Queen Victoria, the site’s namesake, had good taste!

We also saw Killiekrankie pass, site of the first Jacobite uprising in 1689. The scenery was so lovely that I had a hard time paying attention to the history! I was very lucky in taking this tour right as the leaves were changing. It was amazing!
Then it was straight on to Loch Ness, were we saw everything except Nessie, the famous monster of this huge, dark, and -- it must be said -- rather mysterious loch. Three of us opted for a quick swimming dip in, and were relieved to have mugs of whisky-hot chocolate waiting for us on shore to help warm us up!

After heading to the hostel in Inverness for a hot shower and a change of clothes, we headed out for a night on the town. We found a great pub that had live music and a great atmosphere and spent most of the evening there. This place was great! It was lit mostly by large, serviceable candles, the floors and all the furniture was all wood and had clearly been there for some time. There was a group of people playing traditional music that were just sitting at a table in the centre of the room. There were three fiddles, a small set of bagpipes, and a wooden flute, quite the traditional ensemble!

The next morning it was up early again and we were off to Clava Cairns. (As the sun sets here around 4:00, you have to get up early to make the most of the daylight!) Clava Cairns is a Pictish site that has three large stone mounds each of which is surrounded by a circle of standing stones. It was really a neat place, and we were the only ones there.

We also stopped at Eilean Donan Castle, site of the filming of many famous movies such as Highlander and even scenes from The World is Not Enough, the 19th James Bond film. We were told that this is the most photographed castle in Britain, if not the world, so I figured I’d help them maintain their claim!

From there we drove on to Skye, an island off the west coast. We spent the night there and got up early, of course, to explore Skye the next day. The weather was really awful while we were there; we almost got blown off a cliff! It cleared up in the afternoon, though, and we went to the Farie Glen, an awesome place complete with miniature landscapes and a castle -- all natural, I hasten to add. The Little People have good taste in scenery!

From there, we drove back down to Edinburgh and the trip ended. I caught the train back to St. Andrews and was surprised that I was sad to come back to St. Andrews. I love this place, and didn’t think I would ever be sad to come back to it!