Exploring The Highlands of Scotland In Search of Family Roots & Fly Fishing
A Travelogue by John Kaiser
Many travelers seek out the Scottish Highlands for its stunning landscapes of rugged mountains, lochs, and glens. Some travel to this mountainous region covering the northern two-thirds of the country to explore famous attractions, including Loch Ness, hoping to spot Nessie, and Ben Nevis, Scotland’s largest mountain, or familiar scenes from the TV series Outlander, filmed in the area. I traveled to the Highlands of Scotland in search of family roots.
I remember asking someone once about their past and where they were from. Their answer was simply, “From my mother and father, of course.”I imagine that most of us are intrigued, at some point in our lives to ask ourselves, “Where did my ancestors come from? What is my heritage?” For many years, I have wanted to visit the ancestral home of my grandmother, Catherina “Kate” Fraser MacKay, who was born in the Highlands of Scotland in Swordly (about a 40-minute walk from Bettyhill) in 1898. In 1920 at age 22, she left Bettyhill, Scotland, and departed to the United States, from Liverpool, England, aboard the RMS Baltic, arriving at Ellis Island immigration processing center in New York to begin her new life.
Wanting to know more about my ancestors, I decided to travel from Orlando, Florida, to Bettyhill, a remote village located in the Parrish of Farr, on the northern coast of Scotland. Headed on a longitude due north, you will only pass by Iceland and Greenland to the west and Norway to the east. The next stop is the north pole.
To reach the Scottish Highlands, I flew into into Inverness, Scotland, known as the capital of the highlands. I spent one night at the Heathmount Hotel, which was a seven-minute walk to the city center and an ideal base to explore nearby castles, cathedrals, history, and culture.
From Inverness, I rented an electrical vehicle and received a number to call and a code that provided a discount at electric charging stations. I embarked on a 3-hour drive north to Bettyhill. Along the drive, the road begins to narrow to a single lane as the white dividing line disappears. My concern was no longer about staying on the lefthand side of the road but rather staying on the road. Every few hundred meters, a “Passing Place” juts out along the road to allow oncoming vehicles to pass. It’s always a guessing game as to whether you heed way or the other oncoming vehicle pulls over and makes way for you to pass. There are certain roadway protocols, as well as driving etiquette, based on the incline and direction of travel.
I timed my trip for the reopening of the newly renovated Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill, also known as the Mackay Centre. The museum’s name Strathnaver, means valley of the river Naver. The museum first opened in 1976 in the former Parish Church of Columba in Bettyhill. Exhibits chronicle “the tragic story” of the Highland Clearances, and the history of the Clan Mackay, which populates the area. The “Mackay Room” resides on the upper floor displaying Mackay memorabilia and a wealth of Mackay family histories. The Mackay clan was known as a strong and proud clan along the northern coast of Scotland. Their motto, “Manu Forti” is Latin for “with a strong hand.”
While I did not see any direct mention of my grandmother at the museum, volunteers were helpful in guiding me to the Graveyard at Clachan, on the museum property, so I asked the museum volunteers if they could help me locate the gravesites of my grandmother’s parents. I did not have any luck locating their gravesites, but I did enjoy the newly refurbished museum and the graveyard’s many fascinating monuments
That night, I went to the town pub and spotted a gentleman at the end of the bar talking to a couple of people. I approached and struck up a conversation explaining that I was an American visiting the area, which was my grandmother, Catherina Fraser Mackay’s birthplace. In hindsight, I did not even need to say that I was from the United States because my accent made my nationality self-evident. I asked the group if any MacKays come here to this bar. The reply was, “You’re talking to Mackays.” I learned that of the approximately 500 people living in Bettyhill, the majority are from the Mackay clan. My new friends tell me that there are so many Mackays in this area that to distinguish them, many are returning to a naming practice of the past by referring to someone according to where they live in the countryside. For example, one evening, I was introduced to a man with the last name Mackay; however, he introduced himself as Billy Naver because he lives along the river Naver. (You see how that works?) Also, at the pub, I made friends with the owner of the Hotel Bettyhill, Carl, and his son, Nick.
There is only one hotel in town, appropriately named the Bettyhill Hotel. I opted to stay at an Airbnb that was 100 feet away from the museum, which was quiet and quaint. The hosts of the Airbnb, Ian and Angela, offered warm hospitality and a wealth of knowledge about the area. By happenstance, while making my reservations months before, I made a reference to fly fishing, one of my favorite pastimes and discovered that Ian is an accomplished fly fisherman.
Ian said that he would take me to the River Naver to do some fly fishing for salmon and sea trout. He instructed me, while in Inverness, to visit “Graham‘s shop” and get some chest-high neoprene waders. While purchasing them, the gentleman asked me where I was going. His eyes lit up when I told him that I was going fly fishing on the River Naver and he remarked, “Aye, you’re going to where the Royal family fishes.” I found out the River Naver plays host to high-end fishing excursions costing upwards of 20,000 pounds to fish for two days. Ian arranged for me to get one of the only two fishing licenses offered to foreign visitors, at a cost of 30 pounds.
On the first day, we fished upstream for salmon, which were just coming back from the North Atlantic and underneath the polar ice cap where they fatten up in winter. We struck out the first day. Ian got intel that the day prior, the first salmon of the season had been caught. So we had some hope. On the second day, we fished for sea trout, and then it all came together. Ian was about 20 meters from me and said “I have one on the line!” but he was unable to land it. Then I felt a tug on my line, and I landed a Scottish sea trout. What a special experience, and I highly recommend fishing the Highlands of Scotland.
I caught a second fish that day and Ian remarked, “now you’re just showing off.” That evening, we went to the pub for a couple of pints. Two local fishermen were at the pub whom I had met the evening before. I walked to the end of the bar and asked, “Do I need to brag about what happened today?” They chuckled and replied, “No, we already heard that the American caught two today.” We then enjoyed a celebratory shot of scotch.
If you’re the type of traveler who enjoys off-the-beaten-path places, a trip to the Highlands of Scotland offers authentic encounters with the local culture and immersive adventures with the region’s stunning scenery.
What To Know If You Go:
The nearest airport to the region is in Inverness, Scotland.
Where to stay:
While in Inverness, I stayed at the Heathmount Hotel, a boutique hotel centrally located near the city’s attractions.
Upon my return to Inverness, I stayed at the Chieftain Hotel near the airport, which is reasonably priced at 99 pounds per night and the rate includes a nice breakfast.
Bettyhill has one hotel and several Airbnbs for overnight stays. To book a stay at Ian and Angela’s Airbnb, call 44 7554 001619. You can also work with Ian Burns to organize a fly fishing trip.
John Kaiser is a lifelong traveler who has visited more than 35 countries. By the age of 18, John had lived in three different countries, Germany, Spain, and Bermuda, and had visited nine others. His favorite destinations include the Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea for their natural beauty, Carnival in Brazil for its culture and entertainment, and La Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, a moving experience amid monumental works of marble, stone, and metal artistry honoring the dead. His most recent travel adventures include the island of Lanzarote off the West Coast of Africa and Brasília, the capital of Brazil.