Technically, we’d already been in the Highlands at Monachyle Mhor, though, fine as the mossy green countryside of the Grampian range was, I was holding out for what I imagined was to be terrible beauty farther north. This was the southern border of the Highlands, which stretches most of the way across the country from west to east before turning north to exclude the flat coastal lands the farthest east. Everything to the north of this, excepting the Orkney and Shetland Islands and the farthest north tip of Caithness, is the great wilderness of Scotland.
For a place so empty — it takes up roughly half of Scotland’s area, but contains only 1/7 of the country’s population with a population density similar to that of Russia — the Highlands are huge in history and culture. This is the home of the fierce Scottish clans; the tartan and kilt; the Jacobite Risings that threatened to tear Scotland apart in the 17th and 18th centuries; and the subsequent “Highland Clearances” wherein Highlanders were forced off their land. If Scotland finds its vitality in Glasgow and Edinburgh to the south, this is the nation’s ancient homeland.
We drove north toward our next destination, the Isle of Skye. The country opened up and the road narrowed. I couldn’t feel where the car’s left-side wheels were in the road because I was seated on the right, and the switchbacks were tight and becoming more frequent; fortunately, traffic had thinned out. So had everything but the country, which was opening up wider and wider, the mountains taller and the glens deeper, the colors around us shifting from warm greens to striking shades of brown, yellow and grey. Low-hanging clouds rode up the sides of Munros and hid their bald peaks; winds from the west tried to gust us off the road; rainstorms volleyed against our windshield, ebbed, then pattered down again. But try as it might, the weather could never have hidden the raw beauty that seemed ready to swallow us up. The road meandered on. We followed it deeper into the heart of Scotland.