For natural beauty, great walks and a lavish helping of elegance, Loch Lomond is a tease. It would be altogether surprising if you visited the mountains, the glens, and UK’s largest fresh water loch -- and didn’t end up carrying Loch Lomond away in your head. The one-hour drive from Glasgow glitters in reverie because there are a distinct number of intriguing stops that punctuate the way, turning the drive into more than the sum of its parts.
The first seduction that leads us off the straight and narrow is Stirling Castle. This castle, set like a gem amid breathtaking landscape, was the centre of culture, art and celebrity in the 16th century. Today, it is home to the wonderful and the whacky. Actors dress the part in period costumes and attention-seeking clobber - as knights, nobles and foreign ambassadors. They romp about the royal apartments, great hall, chapel royal, regimental museum, kitchens, and gardens, ready to share a spot of history with the interested visitor.
What in any other situation might be regarded as trivia, plays an essential role in bringing the great halls alive within these monumental walls. I leave the castle dreaming of ‘flyting’, which, for the uninitiated, is the act of court poets pitting their wits against each other in rhyming contests to amuse the court.
And while it becomes apparent that the Scots gave much to the world, one of its greatest gifts is whisky. Even if you have only visited Loch Lomond by armchair, chances are you will know that it is also the brand name of the Scotch whisky drunk by Captain Haddock in Herge’s famous comic book series, The Adventures of Tintin.
Deanston Distillery, just eight miles on from Stirling Castle en route the Loch, becomes the next most obvious halt in the journey. We spend a thoughtful hour in this living distillery that’s a cross between a moving history scrapbook and a science installation. The guide walks us through how the place evolved from an 18th century mill, to a whisky distillery producing the distinctive single malt. Post an elaborate tasting with guided instructions, we’re exhorted not to just chug the liquid gold down by the glass, but to linger over each sip and appreciate the nuance. In this case, the sweet, fruity and malty honeyed spiciness on our palate.
A typical Scottish lunch can be had at the distillery café, including Haggis, a savoury blend of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, minced with onion, oatmeal, spice and salt. Traditionally, this quintessentially Scottish delicacy was encased in sheep’s tummy and simmered for roughly three hours.
Now, however, sausage casing is used often. I try it, being the welcome mat to any lavish Scottish breakfast, lunch or dinner, and find that life, once more, begins outside my comfort zone. What sounded not-so-appetising in description, turns out to be delicious and soon I’m eating haggis with just about everything. Traditionally, of course, it comes served with neeps and tatties (read turnips and potato).
The minute we arrive at the Loch, the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime becomes instantly apparent. Beauty is the construct, the man-made -- the architecture of the buildings, the neatly-manicured grass on the golf course, the spa with its infinity pool and litany of massages.
The sublime is what the wind and the rain and nature create -- and it’s standing right before us, in a rainbow that splits the view of heather-dappled glens and the blue water of the loch into two. Injecting more divinity into this scenario are fleecy white clouds that race overhead in a turquoise blue sky. The soundtrack to this experience is the buzz of the crickets. The lighting, the flash of fireflies.
I’ve taken a score of seaplane rides, looked at plenty of landscape from above, but it all swims together in a pool of memory. What usually makes experiences stand out are those encounters entwined with emotion. And the loch recalls without question early childhood fairytales, of sparsely populated treasure islands -- more than 30 of them in this case, lying like jewels covered with patchwork quilts of bottle-green foliage, enshrouded and robed in mist. There’s even an island shaped like a fish -- that feels projected out of some deep subconscious. Some of the islands are crannogs -- artificial islands built in prehistoric periods. That the weather is moody and mercurial and liable to change from sunny to stormy in a matter of minutes, almost as if being caught off guard, unaware -- makes this even harder an experience to relegate to oblivion.
And when nature’s opera begins, even the most beautiful of architecture looks like it’s still auditioning for its place in the landscape. The big fancy yachts lined up by the jetty — rivalling each other with softer, swifter service, lose their edge and become merevessels to explore the great big yonder. And the more the little seaplane flutters in the clouds over miles of wilderness -- that in colour, texture and surreal imagination are other-worldly to say the least, the more we feel the meaning of surrender.
The economy of Loch Lomond make its living out of exclusivity -- golf holidays on stunning greens, against majestic highland backdrops peppered with bunkers, seaplane rides, boat cruises in this first rate watersports venue, lavish spas in luxury hotels. Yet, Loch Lomond frees you from the obligations of being a tourist. You don’t have lists -- longer than Indian menu cards, of places you have to see.
When you’re cruising along in a boat it’s easy to feel as if you have an endless supply of time. There’s no plot. No linear narrative. No real place you have to be. And you can use the time on board to understand more about wallaby colonies, to chat with the captain about the ruins of old Celtic chapels that you glide past, to learn the best places for fishing, or just to let your head fill with the sights and sounds of the waters.
While skimming the surface of Loch Lomond with seaplanes and luxury boats is wonderful for an overview, if you really want to get under the skin of the terrain, there’s nothing like a ramble through the woods with a local ranger. Every footfall becomes as precise as mime, as you watch for red squirrel and black grouse through the branches of trees. I hold tenderly on to a baby toad. I stroke the backbone of a wee bat near the bat house that the ranger’s built. Things that I would not ordinarily do.
But the knowledge that post this walk we’re going to partake in the ritual of afternoon tea plays like a happy accordion in my soul. Few experiences beat returning from a long walk to a plateful of buttery scones with wonderful crumbly hearts, homemade chocolate cake served fresh with cream, ribbon sandwiches and a steaming pot of tea. That a bagpiper in a kilt happens to be passing and bursts into a merry tune just outside the tearoom window -- adds heart to this path.
By the end of a week here, the landscape has seeped into us. We’re beating through thickets of heather and gorse, cloudy-breathed and bandy-legged, relishing the fact that in Loch Lomond you can’t be a tourist, you must be a traveller.
Getting There: Look for one-stop flight options to Glasgow. Book early to avail the best fares. It’s a one-hour drive from Glasgow to Loch Lomond via the M8+A82
Staying and Eating There: Cameron House Hotel -- To watch the theatre of the Scottish Highlands unfold, it’s hard to beat Cameron House. That other conveniences are all under one roof, make this a remarkable choice of stay.
The hotel has fine-dining options aplenty, organises seaplane rides and loch cruises. Just a stone’s throw away from the main building, championship-standard golf is played on the Cameron house golf course. The Carrick Spa - Thermal Experience, has stunning views from its infinity pools and relaxation areas. The treatments come a close second. For more information, visit devere-hotels.co.uk/hotel-lodges/locations/cameron-house.html
What to buy: Deanston Distillery has a comprehensive souvenir shop which has, in addition to its fine whisky, Scottish Tablets which, for the uninitiated, are sweet, utterly-addictive fudge, vanilla macaroons, and other such delights that feel as if they’ve stepped from off the pages of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. If it’s the unusual and the one-off you’re after, then Cameron House has a souvenir shop with a range of crafts and design goods.