July/August 2014

The Road to Altnaharra

Scotland is Soggy, Boggy, Midge-y and Magical

How We Spent Our Summer Vacation: part 1

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While we are traveling in Europe, each year we have to decide where to be in August.  As you may know, the whole continent kind of shuts down in August and goes on vacation, well, except maybe the poor guys who have to stay at work to take care of all the problems created by everyone else being gone.  So every year we have to figure out where to be to keep away from the hordes trying very hard to have a good time while “getting away from it all.”

Needing to be in Britain for the summer for visa reasons, heading up to Scotland was a no-brainer for us.  We love Scotland; it’s very special to us.  We spent about a month here in 2010, and have been chomping at the bit to get back ever since.  We got here mid-July, and are still going strong.  What a great place!

We spent our first night north of the border parked alongside a stream, in a grassy meadow, at a spot we’d seen when we were up here before.  Just perfect.  A great place to start, and (we think) a good place to finish up in late August as a last stop before heading south back to England. 

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The next day we started west across the open moors of the Lammermuir Hills, with sheep scampering out of the roadbed as we passed.  Really handsome terrain, this is.

We were heading for Glasgow, to see our buddies Susan and Malcolm.  Glasgow was getting ready to host the Commonwealth Games, and Susan and Malcolm had signed up as volunteer hosts and were very busy with training classes.. We didn’t stay long,  but had a grand visit nonetheless.  We shared their house with a Londoner, Janet, who’d come up as a volunteer driver for the games; the same job she’d had at the London Olympics in 2012.  These are lovely people.  Susan helped Rick sort his way through obtaining a short-term supply of a medication that was going to run out before a new supply could arrive; and we also managed to spend some time at the Transport Museum, where there is a tall ship in residence.

A couple of days later, leaving Glasgow, we stopped for a bit at some local Highland Games at Balloch on Loch Lomand.  It was fun, although a bit rainy at times, and gave us a good start on our Games experiences for the summer.  When we’d had enough for one day, we proceeded on up the Loch and across the hills towards the west coast. 

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Now out in Argyll, we spent two nights at the end of the Ardfern peninsula west of Kilmartin, in a spot recommended by Susan and Malcolm.  The Argyll area is now a new favorite.  Coastal lochs , ferns, field lilies, sheep/cattle, small forests and open meadows.  Huge plants with elephant ears, summer wildflowers in full bloom, fireweed all over the place; we could have stayed forever.

I wanted a return visit to the Kilmartin area, to see what I’d missed the last time.  This is a mecca of prehistoric sites.  I found a horizontal stone/cairn that was pretty nifty, but the Dunadd Hill Fort was way cool.  Got all the way to the top, to the place where early kings had been crowned.  There is a size 6 shoeprint in the rock that is 1500 years old (and my tennie fit just perfectly). 

We moseyed up to Oban, the nearest regional center as we needed shopping and good internet.  We spent 2 days in their library; it was quite nice and run by friendly folks… and they were having a book sale to boot so we picked up a few goodies.  The town was a bit hectic, as it is a main jumping off place for the Hebrides.  We spent two lovely nights parked along the bay a bit south of town, enjoying a view of the island across the way.  Oban is surprisingly nice and clean and pretty; it was filled with happy folks, all getting sunburned in the gorgeous weather.

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And then the rain settled in as we began a meandering drive inland toward Glencoe and the mountains.  Supposed to get lots of rain over the next few days, so we settled in to wait it out.  Whence the Shorts of Yesterday?  Cooler now.  We are spending many a night in Forestry Commission parking areas-- in the woods or out in the open -- in small little corners of Scotland we might not get to otherwise.  We have POIs on Emily (our GPS) that lead us down wonderful little roads to get to these trailhead parking areas.  Great adventures.

During one sunny half-day we drove up through Glen Coe and past Ben Nevis, stopping at the excellent visitor center there, a repeat visit from four years ago.  We met a lady in the parking area with Skye Terriers, a new breed for us.  Both she and the dogs were charming.  She told us about a spot on the Isle of Skye where a new Skye Terrier Monument had just been dedicated (by Princess Anne no less) a few days earlier.  She said there had been over a hundred Skye Terriers in attendance; we vowed to go see the monument when we got to Skye.

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West of Invergarry, we slept beside the River Garry under the trees of the mixed forest – lots of white water rafting here.  We passed the monument to the Battle of Glen Shiel in 1719, where the defenders were guarding a narrow pass through the mountains; went past the Five Sisters peaks, and on toward Kyle of Lochalsh.  This is a lovely drive along the A87, ending up crossing over the bridge onto the Isle of Skye.

We were very lucky as we moved further west into more and more sunshine over the next several days, and had a mostly warm and beautiful week on the island.  We began with the Sleat peninsula.  It was lovely, and provided us a chance to stop at the Clan Donald gardens with their castle ruins and the new monument to the Skye Terrier.  It was a charming, lovely spot. 

Their gardens were full of ancient trees, including Sitka Spruce and Monkey Puzzle Trees, both of which had personal significance to us.  The spruces hail from Sitka Alaska; while the Monkey Puzzle Trees originate in far southern Chile, representative of the northern- and southernmost points we have visited in the Americas.   And both species are quite happy in Scotland where the 57-degree latitude and damp climate are quite similar to their native lands. 

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We got almost to Aird, at the point of the peninsula, before calling a halt for the night, and parked on a knoll with great views over the water ahead and the hills behind.  What a great area!  The next morning we drove down to the end, but it was less interesting than our grassy knoll – just a muddy turnaround and trailhead for walks along the spine of the peninsula. 

The coastal wildflowers are in full bloom here on Skye (August 1), the wild roses are doing very well, the wild berries are finally beginning to look like they may eventually be edible, and peoples’ gardens are at their best.  The area is full of single-track roads with Passing Place signs every quarter-mile or so.  These roads are great – they are too small for the biggest of the trucks, and they let the rest of us meander at our own pace.  You might think it would be a hassle, but the traffic is light and everyone is polite and patient; we prefer the single tracks to the busier but still narrow two- lane roads.

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Making our way sort of clockwise around the island, we wandered the length of Loch Harport, through a very pretty area that in turn took us down yet another tiny road.  Along the way, the nice little village of Carbost is the center for the area, and the Talisker Distillery is here.  This is a great spot for enjoying the Cuillin Hills.  The weather cooperated, the hills were shining in the sun, and we achieved our main goal in coming to Skye -- catching a glimpse of these famously elusive peaks.

It turned out that the Loch Harport area was our favorite experience on Skye.  We continued around the area, enjoying ourselves and checking out the sights.  Leaving the island several days later, we agreed it had been a lovely area.  Lots of folks visit here, and there were clumps of them sometimes, but it’s very easy to avoid crowds and the touring groups don’t usually go down the track roads.  It was easy to tell that this is a very big destination for foreigners.  There are very few places in Britain where there are signs in 6 languages reminding you to Keep to the Left, but they are a frequent sight on the Isle of Skye.

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The rain comes and goes, but we have no time frame so we don’t care.  At most, we just park up for a day or so, waiting for the weather to move on through.  More often than not, it moves on by and makes room for the sun in just an hour or so, making each day a montage of changing light and color.  Once you get used to the idea that the rain won’t hang around long enough to spoil your plans it really becomes quite pleasant.   

While on Skye, we checked out the possibilities for taking a series of ferries through the Outer Hebrides.  We wanted to visit North Uist, along with Harris and Lewis.  But, by the time we knew when we wanted to go we would have had to wait around for a week for the next available ferry.  Not our thing at all and besides, the busy-ness of it all caused concern that the isles would be too crowded for our taste.  Perhaps another time.  We’d simply have to make do with mainland Scotland this year – oh, darn!

Just before leaving Skye, we sat for a couple of days at the end of a small pier along the waterfront in Kyleakin, a small town on the island side of the bridge.  We had great views of the harbor, the mainland, and (someone said) even a porpoise.  It rained, we made decisions about what was next, and caught up on our reading.

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But time to move on.  Reluctantly, we crossed back over the bridge and headed toward Inverness, by way of Loch Ness (Rick refused to stop at Nessieland – again -- what am I going to do with him?).  Just a thought for you:  if you are wanting to see Loch Ness you should try to travel from north to south; we’ve gone the other direction twice now and there are no reachable pull-outs driving north; they’re all on the lake side.  Something to think about for your next trip to Scotland.

We’d been in Inverness before, on our last trip, and hadn’t spent much time then.  We figured we’d stay longer today, but no.  We got to a store to replenish our mifi device, bought a gizmo to clean our DVD player (said gizmo – Region 2 specific -- didn’t work on our Region 1 player and we are still trying to find a place to return it), and ta-da, the highlight, had fish tea in a little hole in the wall near the train station.  While there, Rick spotted someone enjoying the café’s specialty, homemade macaroni and cheese, and it looked so good we bought some to take with us for our dinner; it was, indeed, quite yummy. 

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That evening, heading into the northern Highlands, we stopped for the night in a forest near the small town of Contin.  It was lovely and sunny and quite delightful, and the next morning we met a man exercising his dogs – five cute little Norwich Terriers!  Nifty little critters.  Mind you, we have no intention of acquiring a dog!  But we do love enjoying those that belong to others.  Many of the parking areas we are finding for our overnight stays are popular with folks coming out to exercise their dogs; we’re brushing shoulders, so to speak, with many happy and well behaved critters almost every night.  It seems to us that British dogs lead a very good life.

We wandered and poked along, following the lochs of the Wester-Ross area.  There were many little microclimates – wetter/drier; lush/barren – and we checked the status of wild berry plants as we went along.  The ferns were just beginning to take on an autumn hue in several places.  There were many rocky outcroppings, several with waterfalls, and all the streams were full.

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And then there was the Great Bog Adventure.  If you care, we were on the B8021 heading north out of Gairloch through Big Sand.  This is a very nice northerly peninsula with several pretty beaches, all dotted with folks enjoying their summer vacations.  Late in the day we came to a parking area signed for an archaeological trail.  The next morning I decided to go see what this was all about.  I climbed up the hill, and quickly realized that higher ground did not necessarily equate to drier ground.  Rick had suggested I wear my waterproof boots, which would have been a good idea.  Wellingtons would have been even better, but who has room for them! 

Every few feet I was in water halfway up my shins.  I jumped from one hillock to the next as best I could, but always seemed to find a low point to land on in between.  Laughing myself silly, I finally stopped trying, and just clumped and jumped along, enjoying the hell out of the whole deal.  It was a hoot.  I took pictures of all the lovely tiny flowers, the mosses, and those sturdy hillocks.  Finally, my jeans soaked to the knee, I made my way back to the Tiger, found dry clothes, and we hit the road.  It was a great adventure.  Oh, and I never did find that archaeological site.  That was one very elusive cairn. 

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We wandered the coastline of northwestern Scotland, moving from sea level to the nearby boggy area and back again, several times a day.  The bogs are often only slightly higher than water level. And if we have one thing to say about coastlines, it’s this – they are always at low tide.  The tide is never in when we visit, and we have the pictures to prove it.

Continuing north, past Poolewe and on towards Ullapool, the coast became rockier, more barren, starker, and more dramatic.  We were once more enjoying mostly good weather and it was spectacular and wonderful.  This is our favorite part of this beautiful country.  Well, one of them anyway; it seems that every day brings another favorite. 

Every overnight spot was a small adventure.  We spent one night in a carpark at the end of a single-track road up into the hills north of Ullapool.  It was the parking area for the Dun Canna walking trail.  Tiny, with splendid views over the hills and the river nearby, we’d had to squeeze between two small farmhouses that we were sure predated the invention of the steam engine.  There was room – just – for us to get by, but we were glad we weren’t any wider.  The road through was muddy, and we were glad it hadn’t rained in a bit. 

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The next morning we got an early start, in broad sunshine, heading for the nature trails at Knockan Crag.  Of course, by the time we got there we were dodging rain drops, but that’s just everyday Scotland.  Knockan Crag is amazing.  This northwestern edge of the country is defined by its geology.  The coming together of different layers of the world, formed in different millenia and then uplifted to create magnificent mountains that show the various kinds of rock, are just terrific.  At Knockan Crag, there are trails to take you up to where you can see what happened, as well as a very interesting exhibit area that explains it all.  We really enjoyed the whole experience.

On along, we entered Sutherland County – reportedly the least populated area of Scotland.  Between Inchnadamph and Unapool we went out onto the best peninsula we’d explored yet.  It was very alpine: rocky with plenty of tarns, no trees at all, but lots of ponds filled with lilies – all at about 200 feet above sea level.  Unique and lovely.  Circling the peninsula on the B869, we found the only pull-off with room to park overnight and not be in the way, atop a promontory, 4.9 miles from Nedd  and 3.8 miles from Unapool (in case you’re taking notes).  The views were to die for.  The next morning, we slid on down a short 25% grade to the nearby loch, and then finally rejoined the “regular” road.  It had been a splendid adventure past sandy beaches, up and down steep grades (marked “unsuitable for HGVs and caravans”) following streams and hugging rock walls.  Often we had the illusion of being at 10-12,000 feet, due to the barrenness of the terrain; then we’d turn a corner and realize we were at sea level.  Damn fine.

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This is “crofter land” up here, and an area of former huge land estates.  Out in the Assynt Coigach area, we learned about the Assynt Crofter Trust.  Back in the 90’s the land was being sold.  The local crofters got together and, with the help of outside foundations, bought it and became landowners.  It’s a great success story.

We went around one last corner, and ended at the uppermost left corner of Scotland reachable by road – Durness.  This would be our northernmost point this year, at N58.562.  Continuing east a little further, we’d now left behind the uplifted peaks we’d been enjoying, and the land started looking like a combination of the High Sierra, Newfoundland, and Alaska’s Brooks Range. In some places we saw huge boulders that had been abandoned by glaciers millennia ago.

For the first time we saw peat bricks being cut from the soil and sitting in piles to dry.  This was a frequent sight in Ireland, but a first for us here in Scotland.  We spent a quiet night in a relatively secluded spot at the southern tip of Loch Eriboll, 13 miles southeast of Durness.  It was quite windy, which meant no bugs to bother us.

Which reminds me – I’ve not mentioned the midges.  You know about the midges, don’t you?  That’s Scotland in August.  Tiny-tiny little critters, impossible to keep out even with good screens, nasty biters that leave their mark for many a day?  Yeah, those.  We’ve been plagued by them for weeks; they are at their worst in the Highlands… between June and August.  Four years ago, we’d had little trouble… in September.  You get the picture. 

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The next day, after looping around a bit following the coastline, we turned south on an unnamed tiny single-track, so quiet that we came upon a rabbit asleep in the middle of the road.  It was the road to Altnaharra (a very romantic word, we thought).  It went down the east side of Loch Hope, and was about 8 feet wide  – about 3 inches room on either side for us; we loved it.  It was quiet and serene, with views over the hills and the lovely clear loch and groups of very scraggly silver birch trees.  We eventually joined a bigger road continuing on south.  Unfortunately, it went through a huge clear-cut area, not nearly as pleasant as what we’d just left.  (This is the area that, a couple of days later, was inundated and closed down by Hurricane Bertha.)

Despite our reluctance, we couldn’t seem to stop moving further south.  We ended up the night along the north coast of the Dornoch Firth, not too far above Inverness.   We had found a little spot not far from the water on our earlier trip, and had enjoyed it a lot; we were pleased it was still there.  To get there you skirt the edge of the local golf course (complete with Historical Links Museum), move quickly past the end of the landing field for the small airport near to hand, and end up in an open field with plenty of room and great views.  Now don’t lose those directions, write if you’d like coordinates!

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We arrived late afternoon on a Saturday, in warm sunny weather.  The night was clear as a bell and we had a full moon that rose up right in the middle of our rear window – a real treat.  We were looking forward to a nice Sunday, but the day deteriorated as the winds picked up and it became quite cloudy.  By late evening strong rains took over and during the night the wind became stronger and stronger. 

We had strategically placed the Tiger to be heading directly into the gusts; usually that’s all we need, but not nearly enough this time.  About 4:30 am we weren’t able to sleep and finally decided to head into Dornoch to get some shelter; as we trundled slowly along we could see in the headlights that the heavy rain was moving almost horizontally.  Once in town we found a spot and were able to settle down again. 

The next morning was somewhat calmer, as the storm had moved on, leaving water everywhere and rivers full to overflowing.  We hit the road, stopping for groceries along the way, and found out we’d just experienced the tail end of Hurricane Bertha.  Who Knew?  Much excitement, and the BBC report we’ve already shared with you confirmed that all the hullabaloo was about a real storm, not just the locals making much of little.

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The next couple of days gave us a chance to wander and see the aftermath of the storm – downed trees, flooded pastures, closed roads, rivers dramatically high.  All quite entertaining and causing us no problems at all -- the best kind of drama there is.  And in the midst of all this Rick gets honors for spotting a red deer, our only sighting so far this year.  (On the Highland cattle front, sightings have been very meager so far; we hope for more soon.)

But what we have been seeing are signs either For or Against the Referendum for Scottish Independence.  Strong opinions are sometimes voiced in grocery stores, but most folks seem pretty calm on the subject. Ask us afterwards whether or not we guessed correctly as to the outcome.

We had promised ourselves a return visit to Inverness when we started back south, but when we came through it was still dumping rain, so we skipped.  (That mac and cheese will have to wait.)  However, we did make a stop a bit further east, at the Clava Cairns, a really important prehistoric site.  It was pretty cool, even if the rain continued and it was practically flooded.

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We continue to find small, remote places out in the countryside to spend the night.  We sit among the trees, or out along the edge of a field, with protected land next to us.  These areas are visited daily by dogs and the folks on the other end of the leash.  Early in the morning, and again in the evening, the parking lot will fill with dogs ready to bound out and hit the trails.  Happy and excited they are, and providing good exercise for their keepers. 

One evening, out in the middle of nowhere, we stopped at a wide spot in the road along an open hillside.  We’d crossed several animal grids, passed a couple of horses with riders, and noticed a hand-written sign saying the trials to be held today had been cancelled because of the nasty weather.  When we parked, among a group of vehicles, we realized that some of the dogs in the fields were being “worked” by their handlers.  It was fun to watch.

The next day we plunged back into civilization, and made for Glasgow.  We had service work scheduled for the truck, and were planning several days in the area.  The biggest event – the World Pipe Band Championship – was coming up on the Saturday.  This was going to be a big treat and was the reason we weren’t still in the far north.  Stay tuned for our report on all that and the rest of our adventures in Scotland.

Rick and Kathy (who’s part Scottish and Prrr-oud of It!)


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