By Lynn Strough
Castles in the sky, or at least close — my house sit in Fort William, in the Highlands of Scotland, came in the form of a Victorian manse, complete with a lively companion.
The Highlands have long been high on my list, and I had two weeks to enjoy the fall with free accommodations in exchange for keeping an eye on this lovely home and entertaining my new furry friend, Hamish. Little did I know that he had 100 times my energy and would keep me on my toes about 14 hours a day. A Border Collie blend, Hamish loves to chase balls, from the crack of dawn (over 50 throws before breakfast) until late at night, with enough zest to knock the stuffing out of both the balls and me.
When he was not chasing balls, Hamish loved to show me all of the surrounding hikes. The Scottish Highlands are rugged and gorgeous on both sunny and rainy days, and if you’re lucky like I was, you may get both at once, and end up with a rainbow.
But first, before going exploring I had to learn how to drive. True, I’d been driving since I was 16, so with decades of experience you wouldn’t think of it as a problem. But upon my arrival, I learned that all of our dog walks — twice a day — started well beyond walking distance. Hamish isn’t comfortable walking in town; he was recently re-homed and has a few “issues,” such as fear of thunder and cars, and a fondness for chasing sheep.
“You have use of our car to take him on his walks,” the homeowners told me, and showed me their big SUV, with, oh God help me, a stick shift. I have to say, this was the most terrifying time on my entire around the world trip — a stick shift, which I haven’t driven in years in a big SUV, the owner’s pride and joy, on many a steep hill on the left side of the road with double lane roundabouts. My heart pounded and I broke out in a sweat. I fessed up to my lack of skills, but they were kind and took me out in the countryside for some lessons.
Once I had the hang of it, I appreciated the luxury of such a nice car with navigation that gave me verbal directions, since Hamish wasn’t much help in that department. We climbed through woods by rushing waterfalls in Glen Nevis over lush moss, past fields of heather and wildflowers. We crossed rushing rivers, and hiked partway up Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the British Isles. Hamish even knows how to climb over stiles, smart dog.
And speaking of smart, Hamish also knows how to ride the ski resort lift; he showed me how to board the gondola for drop-dead gorgeous views. His owners were kind enough to buy me a pass so we could go hiking on top, one of our favorite spots.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’d appreciate the hike near Glenfinnan, up to see the bridge where Harry’s train took him to Hogwarts. We even timed it right to see the old steam train, its whistle blowing as it chugged by below us. And there was lunch in an old parked dining car, where the service was up to Hamish’s standards — they brought him a bowl of water and treated him like an honored guest. Many movies have been filmed in or around Fort William, including scenes from Braveheart.
If you’re more of a beach person than mountain, you’ll still enjoy heading to the Highlands. A short but scenic drive will take you to the shore and one of Hamish’s favorite places. He’s not afraid of cold water and lunged into the sea to chase ball after ball, splashing spray up into his sand-covered muzzle.
Warm, sunny days alternated with cold rain, but still we hiked twice a day and discovered that we didn’t melt. With a rain jacket for me, and fur coat for Hamish, we shook off the drops and enjoyed the peace and solitude of being the only ones out. Fort William is the start/finish of both the West Highland Way and the Great Glen Way, if you’re into long-distance walking or cycling.
The quaint town of Fort William has plenty of pubs and if you’re a hiker, plenty of shopping with no shortage of outfitters. Warm, cosy coffeehouses offer shelter, where I could take a short break from my charge — the house was just up the hill, so I could also take a rest from driving.
They say in the Highlands the midges are worse than mosquitoes, but I didn’t have a chance to find out — apparently in September, I had just missed midge season, barely by a smidge.
The house on the hill had magnificent views, overlooking Loch Linnhe and Fort William. With a turret and rooftop garden, sunken tub inside and jacuzzi out back, a fireplace with lots of wood ready to keep me warm, a library of DVDs, a wine cellar and whiskey cupboard (with permission to sample) and a grand kitchen in which to cook my stew, I was a pretty happy camper. Yes, I was kept on my toes as Hamish isn’t one to rest, but house-sitting in the Highlands was a heavenly haven, and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.
Lynn is a 50+ free spirit whose incarnations in this life have included graphic designer, children’s book author and illustrator, public speaker, teacher, fine art painter, wine educator in the Napa Valley, and world traveler. Through current circumstances, she has found herself single, without a job or a home, and poised for a great adventure.
“You could consider me homeless and unemployed, but I prefer nomad and self-employed, as I pack up my skills and head off with my small backpack and even smaller savings to circumnavigate the globe (or at least go until the money runs out). Get ready to tag along for the ride…starting now!”
Reprinted with permission