Haggis is not breakfast food. Yes, Highlander is a cool movie, and haggis is Scotland’s national dish, Robert Burns even composed an Address to a Haggis, but don’t have it for breakfast. In fact, I’d suggest not having it at all.
OK, you have to try it at least once, like you have to try sheep’s head when you’re in the Middle East, just don’t expect to like it. On my first morning in the Scottish countryside I’m served a “full Scottish breakfast” of eggs, toast, bacon, baked beans, sausage, and haggis. Basically a “full English breakfast” with haggis added.
Haggis is sheep lungs, heart, and liver cooked with onion, salt, oatmeal, suet, spices, and stock. The traditional recipe calls for this witch’s brew to be simmered in a sheep’s stomach. Coming as two thick patties on my plate it looks like mealy, low-grade sausage, and somehow manages to taste both spicy and bland. I expect to be revolted, having never eaten lungs before, but instead I’m simply underwhelmed.
You don’t have to come to Scotland to try haggis now that the U.S. government has lifted its ban on haggis, but you’d be missing some amazing countryside. After the first day on the East Highland Way I’m in Spean Bridge, an old village of tidy stone cottages, friendly pubs, and a small museum about the WWII commandos who trained in the area. It’s not far from my clan homeland around Loch Fyne. In fact the local history pamphlet is written by a schoolteacher named MacLachlan, who gleaned some interesting anecdotes from elderly residents, such as the fact that kids in the 1920s looked forward to springtime because they could take their shoes off and not wear them until autumn. All the boys were keen shinty players back then. Shinty is a bit like full contact field hockey and is not well known outside Scotland. In fact, until I got here the only meaning I knew for “shinty” was that it’s the Amharic word for “piss”.
Puzzling over this linguistic curiosity, I head east towards Tulloch, eleven miles deeper into the Scottish Highlands. Within moments the village is left behind and I’m all on my own in a wooded area following a dirt road. I’m using Ordnance Survey maps, incredibly detailed maps showing not only the topography and landmarks, but also individual buildings, ancient sites, and fences. My compass rarely leaves my pack.
%Gallery-99965%Hiking a new trail has pluses and minuses. At times the route follows dirt logging roads or even paved roads. This is not ideal and hopefully proper trails will appear in these parts. A big plus, however, is that when I’m not on the few stretches of paved road I don’t see anyone for hours. That, and stunning scenery, is why I hike.
The trail follows the contours of a chain of steep hills. To the north is the River Spean and beyond it more hills. The woods open up, giving me a clear view of the rugged hills and the river gleaming dully under a cloudy sky. While I see nobody, this is not an abandoned land. Sheep graze on short grass amid fields of blooming purple heather. An occasional fence shows this is private property. Much of the countryside is open access, meaning I can legally pass through. Not all farmers are happy with this, especially when they discover their once-remote property is on the route of a new trail.
I come to a gate that’s been tied shut. A ladder has been lashed across it with heavy rope to make the point doubly clear. A farmhouse stands nearby, dilapidated but obviously inhabited judging from the trash scattered all around. I can see that the gate on the other side of the property is also tied shut. I check my map. Yes, this is the right place. I have the right to cross here but obviously the landowner doesn’t want me to.
What to do? If I assert my rights I risk getting shot by a Scottish redneck. Shot in Scotland? Yes, farmers and hunters can own guns here, and while Scots aren’t as hyperprotective of their land as Americans, I am not happy about this situation. With the river on one side and almost sheer hillsides on the other, a detour isn’t an option. After a cautious look I scramble over the fence, run across the yard, and scale the other fence. I walk down the farmer’s driveway, legs pumping, hoping he didn’t see me. I don’t feel comfortable for another mile.
Soon all is serene. I’m crossing an isolated field with a sweeping view of the Highlands. A cluster of ruined farmhouses provides a good rest stop. My first impression is that these date from the Highland Clearances. After the Scots lost the rebellion of 1745, the English evicted thousands of families and burned their homes. Many got shipped off to the colonies. It wasn’t the first time. After the failed Argyll Rebellion of 1685, some of my ancestors were sent as bonded labor to the West Indies. Slaves, in other words. But why hold a grudge? In later years Scotland was the industrial powerhouse of the British Empire, as responsible for all its glories and sins as England herself. If I held a grudge against England for past misdeeds, I’d have to accept grudges from everyone whose ancestors were ever hurt by the British Empire. Not a pleasant prospect.
There’s not much left of these old farms. The walls only come up to my waist, except for one house where the chimney and hearth stand to their original height. I sit eating my sandwich where a family once ate porridge and haggis. It’s an eerie feeling. I wonder what happened to them and feel better when I notice the stone walls have mortar in them. That means this house dates to the nineteenth century. These people left to find their fortune in the city or another country. They may have left because of poverty, but at least they weren’t forced out by soldiers.
Bidding the ghosts goodbye I tromp into some woods and up a steep slope before descending again, crossing a bridge, and entering the “village” of Tulloch. It’s actually only a train station and two houses. The bunkhouse is part of the train station. A few other hikers are staying here, using it as a base for daytrips into the hills. As we sit in the lounge drinking beer the Flying Scotsman, a luxury train, stops at the station for some reason. I and a fellow hiker hurry out onto the platform and peer through the windows at couples in formal evening wear dining under crystal chandeliers. A woman wearing diamond earrings looks out at me and smiles. I smile back and toast her with my beer can. She laughs and toasts me back with her champagne glass. Her considerably older husband is too busy with his steak to notice.
It’s a bit surreal, these two worlds of grungy hiker and bejeweled heiress meeting briefly at a lonely rural station on a Highland evening. The train chugs to life and starts to pull off. She waves at me, husband still devouring his steak and what the hell, I blow her a kiss. She laughs and blows me one back.
It’s the closest I’ll ever get to marrying a millionaire.
Coming up next: Exploring Scotland’s lochs!
Check out the rest of my journey hiking the East Highland Way.