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Breaching Hadrian’s Wall

The challenge of travelling from the Highlands of Scotland to the outposts of Roman England



It’s only about 200 miles from the Isle of Skye on the northwest coast of Scotland to Carlisle in northern England – a mere half-day drive by Canadian standards. But allowing for Scottish distractions two days turned out to be barely enough time. Aside from the physical beauty of the landscape, heather-green glens accented by stark rocky crags, bright yellow splashes of gorse and fields of bluebells, the countryside abounds with relics of its long, turbulent history. The remains of fortified towers still cling to the rocky headlands of Lochs facing the stormy North Atlantic and side roads, leading to mysterious ruins from another era, invite exploration.

Before leaving Canada we had arranged to meet our UK friends, Alan and Pat, for dinner in a particular Carlisle pub, so there was some pressure to keep moving. But there are things that just can't be missed and Eilean Donan Castle is one of them. We were barely off the Isle of Skye when we stopped to take a photo, and then another photo. By the time we had finished admiring and touring the castle it was well past noon and time for a pub-lunch in the nearby town of Dornie. "We'll make it up tomorrow," I told myself.

Perched on a tiny islet at the entrance to Loch Duich, Eilean Donan Castle is linked to the mainland by an elegant stone-arched bridge. If it were possible to capture the essence of Scotland in one image it would be a picture of this castle against a backdrop of rocky hills rising above the clear waters of the Loch. Featured in the movie Highlander , the stark stone walls of the two main towers are connected by an elaborate system of defensive parapets. Inside the high arched doorway a labyrinth of halls and stairways lead to observation slots that were once manned by Jacobite warriors.

In 1719 a force of 300 Spanish soldiers occupied the castle in an attempt to help the Jacobite Highlanders capture the British crown for the deposed James Stuart, the Old Pretender. In the ensuing battle the castle was pounded into rubble by cannon fire from British frigates. The defenders surrendered, the rebellion fizzled out, and the skeleton of the wrecked castle sat empty for almost 200 years. Rebuilding began in 1912 but it was not until 1932 that the bricks were finally back in place and the faithfully restored castle was again open for inspection. Today it contains a magnificent collection of 18th century artifacts, including a sword used at the Battle of Culloden, that fateful turning point in Scottish history.

Determined not to get sidetracked again we made it as far south as Oban where our curiosity was piqued by a strange circular structure resembling the Roman Colosseum perched high up on a ridge above the harbour. We found a parking spot on North Pier and, before hiking up to the ridge, spent an hour poking around the docks and waterfront streets. In the summer Oban is the jumping-off point for tourists heading to the islands of Mull, Coll, and the outer Hebrides. But during our visit in May the town was quiet and, except for Betty and me, and possibly the disgruntled ghosts of the McCaig family, the bizarre stone structure on the ridge was deserted.

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