A Year of Celebration in the Highlands 2007

by Brian Pedley (courtesy of VisitBritain.com)

It was country dance night in the community of Nethy Bridge, lying just 18 miles north-east of the ski resort of Aviemore, deep in the Scottish Highlands. From the open doors of the village hall, the glorious lilt of fiddle and accordion became suffused with the babble and hiss of the River Nethy. Inside, a lady called Valerie immediately introduced herself and allowed me just enough time to buy a drink before hauling me into the synchronised swirl of the ’Dashing White Sergeant’. The Master of Ceremonies, an ex-British Army major in Highland dress, called out the dance steps in impeccable German to a group of visiting backpackers. Even local teenagers had arrived to swing each other round the hall.

The mountain peaks hereabouts rise over 4,200 feet to deliver vistas of winter white, summer green, or autumn purple that no viewfinder can ever properly contain. Within this terrain lie battlefields, fortresses, churches and castles – and a cultural mix that is so richly tangible, travellers can reach out, touch it and sometimes dance with it.

Highland 2007 is a celebration of a heritage that spans the Highlands and Islands of northern Britain. Even Shetland, its islands steeped in Norse tradition, weighs in with Britain’s most northerly festival (www.shetlandfolkfestival.com). With performances, commemorations and exhibitions that run until December, Highland 2007 is a re-affirmation of a land, its people and their languages – and their whisky.

At the summit of Cairn Daimh, 1,886 feet above sea level, I steadied myself against a south-westerly wind that roared in from the Grampian Mountains. Russet-red Highland Cattle stared benignly through a confusion of horn and hair, against purple slopes that rose by layers into mountainous infinity. At 25 miles away, I could pick out the mighty Cairngorm mountain defying the spring sunshine to retain its last pockets of winter snow. On such a clear day, the Speyside Malt Whisky Region presented itself magnificently.

On a tour of the Glenlivet Distillery (www.scotlandwhisky.com) at the foot of the hill, in the hamlet of Minmore, guide Dennis was in full flow.

"Of the 90 working distilleries in Scotland, 42 are on Speyside," he said, standing alongside the metal-capped tuns where malted barley bubbled in thousands of gallons of spring water.

Speyside lies between the cities of Aberdeen and Inverness, with the River Spey twisting through it like a silver ribbon.

"Take deep breaths – and be ready to enter heaven," said Dennis outside Glenlivet’s bonded warehouse.

Inside, 65,000 casks of spirit snuggled against each other. Here, the whisky ’sleeps’ for at least 12 years, silently absorbing the flavours and colours of the oak, breathing in the ambient moisture – and breathing out the heady aroma of Aberdeen on Burns Night. Forming part of a self-guided Malt Whisky Trail (www.maltwhiskytrail.com) Glenlivet is one of eight Speyside distilleries that receives visitors throughout the year, with tours that culminate with a free dram of ’the water of life’. Many more distilleries, not normally open to visitors, feature in the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival (www.spiritofspeyside.com) which runs from May 3-5.

Speyside’s early farmers and distillers moved their produce on horseback over a network of hill paths. Mariners heading north had to navigate a tortuous route around the west of Scotland.

Thankfully, by the early 19th century, a 60-mile waterway linked the Highlands with the North Sea. Reaching from Corpach, near Fort William to Muirtown, near Inverness, the Caledonian Canal (www.britishwaterways.co.uk) survives as one of the great waterways of the world. Two-thirds of the canal is comprised of Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness, the magnificent bodies of water formed out of the Great Glen that has bisected the Highlands for millions of years. The remaining 22 miles is an engineering marvel. Near Corpach, for example, a ladder of eight locks, known as Neptune’s Staircase, raises vessels by a height of 70 feet over a distance of just 500 yards. Here, the sheer cliffs of the northwest side of Britain’s highest mountain Ben Nevis soar to a giddying 2000 feet. From June 16-23, British Waterways marks the 200-year history with song, storytelling and dance, along the canal’s entire length, from Fort William to the ancient ’capital ’of the Highlands, Inverness.

With a turbulent history that reaches back 2,000 years, this most elegant and bustling of Scottish cities is dominated by the River Ness that sweeps gracefully into the Moray Firth, with its 500 miles of coastline. From July to September, Inverness makes its own contribution to Highland 2007 with ’Summer in the City’ - an outdoor festival that showcases Highland musicians, singers, artists and young theatrical talent (www.invernessccm.co.uk).

Five miles to the south of Inverness lies Culloden. On a spring day in 1746, the course of history was changed forever on this windswept heather moorland.

The campaign, by supporters of the deposed English King James II to regain the throne for the Stuart dynasty, was ruthlessly suppressed in the last battle to be fought on British soil. The ’Young Pretender’, Charles Edward Stuart, saw his 5,000-strong Jacobite army cut to pieces by 8,000 Government troops. On the anniversary on April 16, Culloden Battlefield will be re-dedicated. Later in the year, the National Trust of Scotland will open a new visitor centre among the memorials and clan graves (www.nts.org.uk).

In the village hall in Nethy Bridge, the country dancing drew to a traditional close with the singing of ’Auld Lang Syne’. The poignancy of Culloden remains deep in the psyche of Scottish people. But it took a Scotsman, Robert Burns, to write a song that had a roomful of people from all over the world linking arms in a fond Highland farewell.

Useful websites

Highland 2007 events: www.highland2007.com

Holidayplanning, events, attractions and accommodation: www.visitbritain.com