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Scotland Travel, New Attractions

by Bob Barton

Visitors to Scotland will notice some changes this year. Don’t worry, the majestic mountains and lochs of the Highlands are just as breathtaking and wild as ever. Tartan, whisky and the words of Robert Burns continue to be important cultural icons. But there are some new features in the landscape that are likely to become ‘must see’ attractions for years to come.

They include the world’s first rotating boat lift; Scotland’s first national park; the UK’s highest mountain railway; and a 73-mile footpath through the heart of the Highlands.

Well under an hour after leaving bustling Glasgow, you can be in the Highlands on the shores of Loch Lomond, the UK’s largest body of water: 24 miles long by five wide. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, as immortalised in the writings of Sir Walter Scott, is the title of the country’s first national park, encompassing 500 square miles of unspoilt mountain and lake scenery. Scheduled boat trips, or walking and cycling, are among the best ways of seeing it.

The national park has an equally new focal point to guide and orientate visitors: the Lomond Shores centre, built in a former quarry at Balloch (opens July 25). The modern, yet castle-like stone-clad building houses a large format film show, “The Legend of the Loch”, specially shot at a cost of £3 million, a restaurant and café. At the top of the seven-storey building is an open-top roof terrace giving a bird’s-eye view down the loch. Below is an all-weather viewing gallery and an orientation centre where you can talk to rangers and plan trips into the park.

Travelling east, you reach Falkirk, halfway between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which is the location for a strange-looking contraption. At first glance, the Falkirk Wheel resembles a vast open-air sculpture, but in fact it is an engineering marvel, and looks set to be as much a Scottish icon as the Forth railway bridge or Edinburgh Castle.

Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in May, the 115ft. high rotating boat lift – the height of eight double-decker buses – is the only one of its kind. It raises up to eight boats at a time from the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal. It is not essential to have your own vessel, as special 40-minute trips enable visitors to enjoy the unique sensation of ‘taking off’ in a boat. A viewing area provides a good vantage point for those remaining on dry land.

The wheel is part of an ambitious scheme, the Millennium Link, which has recently reached fruition, to join these two canals and link the North Sea with Atlantic Ocean, after a hiatus of 40 years.

If levitating on a boat is not exciting enough for you, what about mountain climbing on Europe’s latest -- and Scotland’s first – high-speed funicular railway? The mile-long (1.8 km) journey up Cairn Gorm Mountain near Aviemore replaces chair lifts, ferrying visitors from a base station 2,100 feet above sea level to a summit station at 3,600 ft. – 400 feet below the mountain top. It is the UK’s highest railway and gives breathtaking views of its biggest and highest land mass, the Cairngorms -- topped only by the chance to eat in Britain’s highest restaurant.

To find the next of Scotland’s new attractions, continue north from Aviemore, through ‘whisky country’, to the Highland capital of Inverness. This is a starting point for a walking trail that puts many others in the shade. The Great Glen Way, which opened on April 30, is named after – and follows -- the geological fault which effectively slices the country in two, from North Sea to salty Atlantic sea lochs.

Running for 73 miles (117km) south-westwards from Inverness, the relatively gentle route uses canal tow-paths, forest tracks and trails past crofting communities and the shores of great lochs, to Fort William. Here it ends in the shadow of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain.
Many visitors will use part of it for a day’s walking – maybe around Loch Ness, in the hope of seeing its legendary water monster ‘Nessie’– while others will be determined to walk its entire length.

One easy way of doing the whole trek is to board the hotel cruise barge Fingal of Caledonia run by Caledonian Discovery, which sails a parallel route using the Caledonian Canal, while you walk. The advantages: you have the familiarity of the same overnight base throughout (it takes a week), your luggage is carried, and you can walk as little or as much as you wish.

Follow the main road south from Fort William and you come to Glencoe, one of the most emotive names in Scotland. This mountainous location witnessed the massacre of the Macdonald clan by their hosts, the Campbells, in February 1692. A popular, if macabre, tourist magnet, it boasts a new attraction that is a perfect example of Scotland’s respect for the past and the environment.

The visitor centre, which opened in May, is situated outside the glen but offers stunning views into it. Built in the style of a ‘clachan’, or highland village, using sustainable Scottish timber, its exhibits tell the glen’s history from its beginnings as a volcano and shaping by the ice age. People – from a mountaineer to a musician – tell of their experiences; wildlife, including golden eagle, wildcats and pine marten, are revealed; and, of course, the massacre story is told in several languages including Gaelic.

One of the delights of a holiday in Scotland is the opportunity to stay in some delightful, family-run country house hotels. One, the intriguingly named Roman Camp Hotel at Callander, was built in 1625 as a hunting lodge for the Dukes of Perth and has a hidden chapel. As a contrast, Edinburgh the capital has luxury hotels both old and new. The Balmoral, in Princes Street, celebrates its centenary this year, while The Scotsman is newly converted from offices of The Scotsman newspaper.