EDINBURGH, Scotland - I was only 12 when I saw my first Scottish castle. It was the final night of the Edinburgh Festival and my parents marched me up the Mound to attend the Tattoo, a spectacle of military bands just outside the walls of the magnificent castle dominating the skyline of Scotland's capital. The queen arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, there were pipers and drummers galore, and at the end of the bedazzling performance, a lone piper played from the ramparts of the towering castle. I was hooked.
Since then, I have visited Scotland five times, and each trip had its own theme, from searching for long-lost relatives to a stint on sabbatical at St. Andrews University. But I had never focused on its signature landmarks - the castles. That changed in mid-September. I left Washington's Dulles airport bound for Scotland. My companions were my fiancee (who had never been to Scotland) and another couple who had visited Scotland several times to play golf.
There are many images of Scotland: The kilt, bagpipes, and whiskey are but a few. But Scotland's most enduring legacy is writ in stone. There are more than a thousand Scottish castles: Some are in ruins, but others are lovingly cared for and lived in by the descendants of ancient clan chiefs. Each whispers a separate story. But taken together they tell an epic tale of a country with a long and proud, albeit sometimes bloody, history.
We had chosen a great time to go: In autumn there is still plenty of daylight, but fewer tourists, and, oh yes, this year Scotland was in the midst of deciding its political future.
The day we arrived in Edinburgh was the historic Independence Referendum; much to our surprise, the feel of the city seemed to be business as usual. We saw lots of signs - Yes (for independence) and Better Together (for remaining a part of the United Kingdom) - but if history was hanging in the balance, we couldn't tell. The next day, the results were crystal-clear: In a historic turnout, 55 percent of voters thought Scotland and England were indeed better together; the United Kingdom would remain united for now.
I had decided on an itinerary that was essentially a clockwise circle through the Scottish Midlands. Edinburgh is Scotland's capital and second-largest city, chock-full of historical and cultural import, so it seemed fitting to begin our tour there, at the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh Castle. Fog and mist shrouded the views of the city far below, but even the gloomy weather - it was what the Scots call a dreich day - didn't dampen our spirits. Passing through the main gate watched over by statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace, bygone champions of Scottish independence, we wound our way ever higher over the rough stones, pausing in St. Margaret's Chapel and visiting the Scots Guard barracks, before finally arriving in the keep where the Crown Jewels of Scotland are secured. Eventually we found our way to the tiny bedchamber where in 1566 Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her only son, who upon her death would become James VI of Scotland. After the union of the Scottish and English crowns in 1603, he became James I of England, the first monarch of the ill-fated House of Stuart. A warm bowl of soup and a wee dram later, my friends were hooked on Scotland's castles, too.
The following morning, we were off to a spot where I had a personal connection: Loch Lomond and the tiny village of Luss, home of Clan Colquhoun, my own ancestral affiliation. For nearly 400 years, the lairds of my clan resided at Rossdhu (Gaelic for "Black Rock"), but in 1992 the classic Georgian manor was sold and converted into the centerpiece of the very exclusive, very private Loch Lomond Golf Club, strictly off-limits to the casual tourist. But thanks to a friend who is a member of the club, Rossdhu's wrought-iron gates swung open and we were treated to a delicious lunch that included haggis balls and champagne. Afterward, the club's manager gave us a tour of the mansion with its opulent drawing and dining rooms and portraits of the Colquhoun lairds. A short walk down the loch, we peeked into the walled garden of the new spa that caters to a select few lucky members from around the world. The final touch was watching foursomes play up 18 in golden sunlight, a magical end to a magical day.
But the lure of new castle adventures had taken hold, and soon we were headed west to Oban, "Gateway to the Isles," where we boarded the ferry to the Isle of Mull. If Rossdhu was a genteel Georgian mansion, Castle Duart had the rugged, forbidding look of a fortress. Sited on a promontory jutting into the Sound of Mull, the castle is the ancestral home of Clan Maclean where, for more than 400 years, it has guarded the waterway to the Inner and Outer Hebrides, and served as home to the Chiefs of the Macleans. At the ticket booth by the front gate, we chatted with a charming gentleman in a tatty sweater who uttered a universal expletive as he fumbled making change. It was only once we were inside the castle that Kat, my sharp-eyed fiancee, noticed a striking resemblance between the ticket-taker and the portrait of the current Maclean laird, Sir Lachlan ("Lachy") Maclean. In fact, it was no mere resemblance. Sir Lachlan still lives in an updated wing of the castle with his family and, once properly identified, he was more than willing to share his recollections of growing up in Duart castle. Now 72 years old, he reminisced about his ancestors - his father was lord chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth II as well as chief scout, head of Britain's Scout Association - and admitted that castles were indeed drafty and cold residences. "We played a lot of snooker because the table was next to the fireplace," Sir Lachlan confided.
On the morning after our visit to Duart and a delicious seafood dinner in the charming village of Tobermory, we boarded the small ferry to Kilchoan. We eventually arrived on the Isle of Skye, northernmost island of the Inner Hebrides and site of Dunvegan Castle, the ancestral seat of Clan MacLeod. Located on Skye's rocky western coast, Dunvegan's gardens are extensive and the views of the castle and the surrounding sea lochs are mesmerizing in clear light. Parts of Dunvegan are seven centuries old, and just as at Duart, ancestral portraits keep watch over artifacts including a set of bagpipes once belonging to the MacCrimmons (hereditary pipers to the Lord of the Isles), the Flag of the Fairies (a tattered piece of silk that keeps any MacLeod safe from peril), and a silken waistcoat once worn by Charles Edward Stuart, the Bonnie Prince himself.
The next day we turned east, crossing over the Skye causeway and through the hauntingly beautiful region known as Kyle of Lochalsh to Eilean Donan, Scotland's most-photographed castle. The day was dreary and gray, but we could still appreciate the romantic beauty of the castle, which sits on a small island at the confluence of three great lochs. Much of the castle was destroyed by English warships in the Jacobite rebellion of 1719, but early in the 20th century several of its great rooms were carefully restored by John MacRae-Gilstrap, descendant of a family with historic ties to the castle. Our favorite rooms were the scullery and kitchen, with staff and serving dishes worthy of Downton Abbey.
Dunnottar Castle on Scotland's North Sea coast was our final stop. Perched on a massive cliff that has been fortified since the early Middle Ages, Dunnottar has welcomed many famous visitors including Mary, Queen of Scots and her son, James VI. But more than its distinguished guestbook, Dunnottar holds pride of place in many Scottish hearts because it was here that the Honours of Scotland - the regalia of crown, sword, and sceptre - were hidden in sacks of wool from Oliver Cromwell's invading armies in the 17th century. The day we visited was wonderfully warm and sunny, the wind and seas calm, perfect for a walk along the cliffs, listening to the seabirds and the wash of waves on the beach far below - grace notes for our magical journey.