'Rob Roy" has come to town, and many Scottish Highlanders are hoping a new Hollywood film on the life of their most celebrated 18th-century outlaw will help revive the region's flagging tourist industry.
The real Rob Roy was a far more complex character than that portrayed by the film version's ever-honorable Liam Neeson. But the landscapes that set his story have an integrity - and an intensity - of their own.
In "Rob Roy," as in Mel Gibson's "Braveheart," another Highland-based film released this year, the landscapes nearly eclipse the stars.
"For us, to have two films set in our area is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," says Winny Dick of the Fort William Tourism Bureau, near where much of the film was shot. "The last Rob Roy film was in 1953. Now, suddenly, we have two blockbusters each spending more than $30 million apiece to promote their films."
In Rob Roy's day, the main source of wealth along the steep Highland glens was cattle; today, it is tourists.
The Gulf War and recession cut deep into the number of North American visitors to Scotland in 1991-92. Some of the foreign business has come back, but not enough to offset a five-year drop in the number of British visitors vacationing in Scotland.
For Highland hotels, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, craft shops, and woolen outlets, British visitors are critical. Most foreign bus tours hit the high spots in Glasgow or Edinburgh, then head back to Heathrow Airport. Britons have traditionally ventured deeper into the Highlands, but now are opting instead to bask on beaches in Spain and Portugal.
"The more times you visit a country, the further you'll explore into it," says Roger Carter, chief executive of the Edinburgh Tourist Board. "It's the British tourists that explored the Highlands, and what we've lost in terms of domestic business has not been compensated by foreign tourists."
"Rob Roy" and "Braveheart" may change all this. Attendance at the Rob Roy visitor's center is up 20 percent over the same period last year, thanks to the "large number of Americans who have seen the film," says center spokesman Donald Pow. "In a small rural area, an increase like that is very significant."
"These are people who had planned on coming to Britain anyway, and made a detour to Scotland because of the film," he adds. "We don't expect to feel the full impact of the film until next year."
The Fort William cinema was the first in Scotland to screen "Rob Roy" after its premiere in Edinburgh.
During opening week last month, enthusiastic patrons filled Fort William's 164-seat theater as soon as its doors opened. Audience members needed no convincing of the glories of the film's natural setting, and some kept up a quiet running commentary on the film locations.
"That's Glen Coe," whispers Laurie Jackson, a frequent visitor from Strathaven, a town outside of Glasgow. "That's Rannoch Moor.... That house is on Loch Morar."
In one of the film's most wrenching moments, actress Jessica Lange, as Rob Roy's wife, wades deep into Loch Morar after a violent encounter. There is a look of anguish on her face.
"I've been there," Ms. Jackson explains. "That water is freezing."
The Fort William tourism board is developing its own version of a guide to the film's key locations for American tourists, and expects to release a map based on both films this week.
These are rugged, elemental landscapes, shaped by wind, rock, and water. From the rock faces of Ben Nevis, Britain's highest mountain, to the soft peat contours of its moors, this can be challenging terrain for the uninitiated. Here British commandos trained for World War II missions, and many lost their lives in the process.
While film captures the other-worldly quality of these settings, it misses how quickly clouds and light change their appearance. A sudden rainstorm creates instant waterfalls or a rainbow across or along a glen. A shaft of light highlights a brilliant slope of yellow gorse, once blanketed by mist. Eagles, black-faced lambs, and shaggy Highland cattle add color to vast stretches of rock and summer-brown heather.
History is traced vividly across the landscape of this region - each glen the site of a massacre or rebellion or critical battle in a fight for clan or country.
The region's open spaces were once covered with Scotch pine, cut down to build England's great sailing fleets. On the outer isles, standing stones (apparently transported here from Wales) speak of earlier meanings, as yet undiscovered.
A gentle hint to prospective tourists planning a film-inspired detour to Scotland's Highlands and Western Isles: Check the labels on rain gear. The nearby Isle of Skye derives its name from the Norse word "ski" (cloud) and "ey" (island), "the misty island." These mists here and on the mainland can be as penetrating as a heavy rain.
For first-time tourists, the distinction between the terms "water repellent" and "waterproof" becomes quickly apparent. Not without reason the region's oiled woolens and hearty meat-and-potatoes concoctions.
But the region's most celebrated tourist, the writer Samuel Johnson, perhaps provides the best answer to tourists facing the lure of sun-drenched beaches. Johnson claims to have answered his wife's objections to his 1773 trip to the then rarely visited Highlands and Western Isles thus: "Madam, we do not go there as to a paradise. We go to see something different from what we are accustomed to see."