The weather has realised winter is approaching, daylight savings has ended and the Irish rain seems set to continue indeterminately, so perhaps over the next few weeks I will catch up a little on sharing photos and stories from this year’s travels.
Once more, pretend it is summer in the Highlands of Scotland, although you wouldn’t know it because the sunny days of Ford are behind us. Further north the high, clear skies gave way to sullen grey as we approached Oban.
Oban seemed like a bustling metropolis after Ford; there were traffic lights, buses and pay and display car parks! The temperature was growing decidedly cool, but we braved visiting McCaigs Tower for views over the harbour before seeking the refuge of warmth inside the Oban Distillery.
On the outskirts of town we visited Dunstaffnage Castle, it is a well preserved ruin; more imposing from outside than in. The battlements are a lovely spot for lunch and offer views over the surrounding woodland. The trees are covered with bright new leaves and a lush growth of ferns, moss and bluebells grow beneath.
Our destination for the night was Glencoe, and we had not booked anywhere to stay. Ford had been so empty of guests we had no worries about finding accommodation; in fact we expected establishments to be haggling for patrons! But as the rain lashed down and it grew dark, we discovered not one single ‘Vacancy’ sign. Unknown to us it was the weekend of the Caledonian Challenge (a kind of Iron Man-ish event) and the rain didn’t seem to have put anyone off. We continued down the road to Kinlochleven. The road clung to the side of a rain lashed hill, each bend offered new views down the sodden glen and over Loch Leven. Halfway down this road we came across a holiday park advertising luxury caravans for rent, with our only other option a tent (with no sleeping bags, in torrential rain, in midgie swarms) we were pleased to accept the offer of an uncleaned caravan at half price! The lovely proprietor, Patsy, handed us a fresh set of sheets still warm from the iron and we set up home in the cleanest of the uncleaned caravans.
Despite the weather, the gathering dark and the midgies I went for a stroll. There was a bluish late light illuminating the beautiful loch. Low clouds hung over the looming hills, just their noses pushing through the clouds, and the rain eased to drizzle. My woolly hat was pulled down past my eyebrows, my scarf wrapped around three times and pulled over my nose. Squelching through damp grass, unable to stand still because then the biting midgies caught up. This is how the Highlands should be – challenging but glorious!
Down the track to the loch edge I passed brave campers lighting fires and setting up tents. The Loch opened out from its narrow, constricted section by the campground and the view down it towards Glencoe village was fantastic in the cold half-light.
The following day saw us heading further north, the first stop was for fuel and there was a very cheery man working at the petrol station. He said “better day today – yesterday reminded me of the last two and half years!” (I giggled) “You think I’m joking!”
At Fort William I ate the best Steak pie I have ever had from a bakery on the main street. It was a busy wee shop advertising award winning pies. There were bronze and silver winning pies of various flavours. But the ‘Highland Brue Steak Pie’ was the only one with gold. The lady explained to me that Highland Brue meant it was made of “Heeland Coo”, so I had to try it. The meat was deliciously soft and tender – melt in the mouth.
As an afterthought we visited the local museum, it is independently run, staffed by volunteers and incredibly well laid out. Full of interesting exhibits including the kilt and full highland dress gifted to John Brown by Queen Victoria, as well as many artifacts purportedly worn or owned by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Free entry, free wifi, free loos – definitely worth a visit!
Then on, past Inverlochy Castle and Eilean Donan Castle towards the Isle of Skye. The roads here are lined in glorious colour by self-seeded (read: invasive) rhododendrons, their abundant blooms in no way diminished by the steady rain.
Over the bridge to Skye though, the terrain is drastically different. On Skye there are no rhododendrons and even whin (gorse) is sparse. It is a rugged and barren landscape, bleak, treeless and windswept. Grey clouds hung low over the menacing Cuillin Mountains as we drove towards Talisker. Hoping to have less trouble finding last minute accommodation on this wild and remote island it was with horror that we found once more all the B&Bs displaying ‘NO VACANCY’ signs. A friendly chap at the hostel informed us it was the weekend of the Skye Marathon, and also that Skye is Scotlands 2nd most visited destination (after Edinburgh). But he blithely suggested; “don’t worry – there’s no trespass laws here – just park in a paddock and sleep in the car!”
Fortunately it did not come to that.
A warmer, sunnier day dawned; a good day to climb Ben Tianavaig. It was rumoured to have a track up, but no trace could be found, so we simply struck off through a farmyard – making the most of yesterday’s info about the lack of trespass laws. Our noses took us through a wooded glen with a small stream and bluebells, and then out into sodden farmland full of heather and bogs. The sheep were sparse in the massive fields, black faces lifted to judge us, horns looking menacing. Lambs galumphed.
Striding through heather is tough going, it felt like wading through a mattress, but the slow pace meant it was easy to spot wildlife. There were large yellow dragonflies, black toads and tiny golden frogs. I nearly stepped on a fledgling bird which fluttered off and hid in a heather bush, then allowed me to offer it a crumb from my muesli bar.
The gradual incline grew steeper, and eventually we were above the sheep tracks. There were rocky outcrops and hidden valleys and squelchy bogs. I ascended the last section on hands and knees, my shoes sliding on the slick grass.
The top offered 360 degree views from Portree to the Cuillins and across the sea to the Isle of Raasay. At the top there was an Ordnance Survey pillar, a cloud of midgies and bugger all else. But there was an obvious path! It wound leisurely up the opposite side of the hill.
After a day spent in the open air, our last day on Skye was to be spent driving around and visiting the touristy spots.
Dunvegan Castle has been privately owned by the McCleod clan chief since it was built over 800 years ago, admission is pricey but I was entranced for hours. The gardens are a riot of colour, a sharp contrast to the rest of Skye. Full of poppies, ladies bonnets, roses, hydrangeas etc. They were first laid out in the 18th century and added to ever since. There was also a patch of well-tended woodland, the story goes that much of Skye was once covered in forest, but in the 16th century it was cut down as it provided cover for bandits.
The castle itself is not immediately imposing, it is a uniform pebbledash brown in appearance, with large sash windows and a lack of turrets and arrow slits. However the interior is fascinating and it feels homey – as it should! The family has lived here over 30 generations! It is thoughtfully laid out, less as a museum than as a family proud to share its heritage. It is not clinical or perfect, some signs are misspelled, myth and history are mixed together. Fairies are real here, so real that their flag is on display. They are as much a part of the landscape here as the castle is.
Next stop was Dun Beag Broch, built circa 2000 years ago and inhabited till the 18th century, it sits atop a natural rock formation with views out across the Loch. Free to visit, it is surprising how much still stands of this ancient and mysterious building. Double stone walls encircle the living space, now grazed by sheep.
On to Talisker Distillery, our ‘Friends of the Classic Malts’ passes got us a free dram each, it was not as smokey as we had expected and therefore enjoyable!
Last for the day were the fairy pools. Just a short way from the distillery and on the edge of the Black Cuillin Mountains, a string of parked cars marked the start of the track. The track wound down the hill and across the valley to the foot of the Cuillins, looming, cloaked in cloud.
Before even leaving the car the midgies found us, and they weren’t to be tricked, they flew along beside us like a black veil. For the first time, even as a moving target we were not safe!
The walk and pools were busy, some folks were even swimming and squealing at the cold. The pools are circular and blue, clear and deep. The water is fed by gentle waterfalls, a whole series of pools and falls extend up the valley.
The further we walked, the more we had the place to ourselves. By the time we reached the scree at the base of the Cuillins we had only the midgies for company.
The next day dawned clear and sunny, the Isle of Skye no longer moody as we drove back over the bridge to the main land.