12213085663?profile=RESIZE_930xPhotos by Victor Block unless otherwise noted

Ask most anyone what comes to mind when they think of Scotland and you’ll probably hear bagpipes, kilts, tartans – maybe the brogue and haggis (about which more later). If the year were 1746, you would probably have heard the same thing. But it was in that year, after the Battle of Culloden when the English decimated the Scots, after which they set about to systematically rid the country and its people of their identity and traditions. It didn’t work, which makes it all the more remarkable that everything that defines the Scottish people today is the same as it was centuries ago – and it was my mission to explore them all: kilts, bagpipes, whisky. Even the Gaelic language. Well, almost all – haggis, not so much.

And it was on a trip to the Scottish Highlands with UnTours, a 49-year-old U.S. tour operator with its own unique traditions, that I got to relish in all of it. UnTours puts you up in accommodations in multiple cities in more than a dozen European countries, and often unusual ones – perhaps a castle, a vineyard, or a old church (like ours, below. built in 1837). The company provides a rental car; provides you with a wealth of information; connects you with a local contact to answer questions; and sets you off to see what you want to see when you want to see it, unencumbered by anyone else’s set schedule or agenda.



The UnTours Travel Philosophy - to Live More Like a Local - Makes for an Incomparable Travel Experience

Should we sleep in or get an early start? Eat in or have dinner out? Spend the day exploring our home town or visit some of the other places within an easy hour car ride? Enjoy a sampling of a variety of single malts – or revel in other less-indulgent sightseeing options? Such are the many decisions with which we had to cope on our Scottish Highlands UnTour, an unrivaled way of traveling that encourages you to live like a local. Which means one decision you never have to make is whether or not to unpack.



We were spending the week in our own apartment a former 1860s church (above) on Friar´s Lane in Inverness, a city of 48,000 considered the capital of the Highlands – and it indeed felt like home. Although a street sign on the corner with arrows pointing to a museum, the bus station, a market, and “Castle and Toilet” warranted a double-take. As did all the neighborhood signs where the Gaelic translation appears below the English ID. Dead language? Not at all – they still teach it in school. Impenetrable to the unititiated - but then again, sometimes so is the language they do mostly speak in public, which they claim is English.



Kilts, tartans, whisky – not your everyday window-shopping options. If there were a singular symbol for Scotland, it might be tartan: from hotel interiors and tabletop items to cookie tins and everyday clothing. And then there are the wings of planes at the airport sporting bright plaid colors. Scottish tradition in inescapable.


The Highland Games: Old-World Tradition as Modern-Day Entertainment  

Case in point: the Highland Games. A throwback to ancient Scotland, these are a unifying rite of passage for any Scot. Amidst the vast ocean of tartan, bagpipes and clans sits a cultural event steeped in skill, tradition and community going back more than a thousand years. These days various games are held in several cities throughout the summer – and we found ourselves at the Inverness games on the only day of our July week that was dry and drenched in sunshine.

They´re similar in style to the "Renaissance faires" in the United States, only here the men are wearing kilts rather than robes. The music, of course, is courtesy of the incredibly distinctive bagpipes emanating from competing bands, never leave your ears. And, of course, every pipe band sports its own tartan -- all of which I wanted a sweater made of -- so the multitudes of plaids create a fashion visual that is hard to tear your eyes away from. And I can’t tell you how many times I heard the words "bonny," "aye," and "laddie/lassie." To say the Highland games are an assault on all the senses is a wee understatement.



And although some of the games such as track and cycling may be recognizable, the chanter (a recorder-like woodwind instrument), caber tossing (cabers being large, tapered wooden poles), hammer throw (above), and tug ‘o war are not. Men throwing heavy sticks, balls, hammers – and probably their arms out!


Then of course there are the Highland dancers, from age six to seniors all decked out in colorful costumes, their intricate steps, toe-tapping music and enthusiasm galore enchant, whatever the age. I noticed at one point that silence had descended upon the arena and I realized it was the first time a bagpipe couldn’t be heard somewhere off in the distance. It didn’t last long.



So kilts, bagpipes, dancing, sports - that still leaves whisky. Scottish single malts – celebrated locally as whisky (no e) – are known all over the world for their richness and smoothness – and cost. With a history dating back as far as the 11th century, Scottish whisky is an important part of the country's identify, with most of the 140-plus distilleries in the Highlands. Being more of a pedestrian imbiber of alcohol, I was not the ideal candidate for a whisky distillery tour and tasting. But I soldiered on.

At the Glen Ord/Singleton Distillery (in the town of Muir of Ord, less than a half hour out of Inverness), which has been crafting its single malts for almost two centuries, I sampled a flight of their three brands of whisky – a dram each which I learned was 25 milliliters (just under an ounce). At 12 years of age, they were just kids (the oldest can reach 70 to 80 years of age). Three very different flavors - or so I was told - but I was useless as a connoisseur; they all tasted the same to me. I’m not proud. Then, as instructed, I added three drops of water to each dram to “separate the flavors.” And yes, I noticed they were more potent – but still tasted the same. I slunk out of the distillery.



But I was braver there than with one of Scotland’s most traditional dishes – the inevitable haggis (above), a lovely, crumbly concoction of sheep "pluck" (liver, lungs, and heart), mixed with oats and boiled in a the animal´s stomach - which I chose not to pursue. In stead I opted for another single malt, which should tell you how much I was turned off by haggis. (For the record, Larousse Gastronomique describes it as having "an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour," with others noting a liverish undertone.)



And last but certainly not least, a visit to the Highland House of Fraser reinforces the uniqueness that is Scotland because there, for a mere 750USD you can have your own personalized kilt made. And should you not have your own family tartan, you can choose from 750 different plaids from other clans. And you can even watch a kiltmaker weave your threads while, of course, listening to some bagpipe music. And lest you think the kilt is itself a throwback to history, not so. They are often worn at every celebratory gathering from birthday parties to weddings to funerals – and sometimes just because. As our local UnTours rep told us, he takes his kilt and bagpipes with him wherever he goes – apparently both wrap up well for traveling -- which conveys how very much a part of everyday living the old traditions are today.

So despite Britain’s efforts to destroy the language, the clothing, the traditions, the lifestyle, and the very identity of the Scottish people, it all remains alive and well today. And UnTours encourages its own traditions. Picking up a roasted chicken and another bottle of wine at a local shop in our home town, we headed back to our cozy apartment to think about what other historic/modern Scottish traditions we would next explore.

Again, for more information, visit UnTours.com/Scottish-Highlands.

P.S. I actually wish I had tasted haggis – if only for the sake of this article!


E-mail me when people leave their comments –

You need to be a member of Tripatini to add comments!

Join Tripatini


  • Very nice! I´m planning an upcoming visit to Scotland but sadly won´t have time for the Highlands on this trip. But this gives me something to look forward to - thanks!!

This reply was deleted.