Monday, 30 July 2012

Sipping Highlands, Lowlands, Islands, and Speyside

Although Northern Scotland had originally been set aside as a relatively easy place to travel, in other words, something to do when we were grey nomads, we were already here for Layla's birthday, we still had a few weeks left of waiting for visas, and my old man was with us and had enough grey hairs for us to say hey, why not do it now?! We bid farewell to the others who were heading back south to Birmingham, while Jimmy, Tia and I took our hired wheels north.

We hadn't had a chance to research where to go and what to see in Scotland, but we had appropriated a nice big road map and guidebook from Layla's car which, combined with a few rugged photos I vaguely recalled from the Isle of Skye, pointed us northwest. At the wheel, I had a wonderful feeling of the open road and all its possibilities. Tia rode shotgun with the semi-reliable GPS and even-less-reliable music cable, with Jimmy in the backseat operating old-school with sprawling road map and guidebook, buried under a heap of jumpers and raincoats.

From Glencoe we followed the bilingual signs (English and Gaelic) through Fort William, past Ben Nevis (Britain's tallest mountain) and back to Mallaig, in the hopes of catching the ferry across to Isle of Skye. The vehicle allocation for the ferry was full when we arrived, but we waited in the "extras" parking line since sometimes they were able to squeeze another one or two small cars on board. We were still behind by five cars, so we didn't expect it when somehow the ferry packer was able to fit six extra cars onto the boat. I thought I was a good packer, but this blue boat was like a blue Tardis!

Landing on the Isle of Skye mid-morning, we were hungry for both food and sights. We found our way to the Sligachan Hotel, the only place open for food at 11am. The breakfast muffins were mediocre, and I wasn't game to try the black pudding that Tia was munching on, but I don't believe food was what kept this establishment going.

A bar with over 350 bottles of Scotch, only in Scotland - Sligachan Hotel, Isle of Skye
Three hundred and fifty bottles of Scotland's finest sat behind the bar, and no two were the same. It was a dram pity that I had not been in Scotland long enough to be able to handle strong drinks before midday, and that I still had some driving to do. But it was an impressive collection.

Now that we were fed, we headed west for some sights. The tiny village of Carbost not only featured the Talisker distillery (of the seriously smoky sip), it was also populated by some crazy straw-filled residents. These were not your usual yokel in checked flannel and straw hat; this was the Tattie Bogal featuring witches on broomsticks, a hungover drunk complete with plumber's crack leaning on a wall and appearing to puke, a hitch-hiking panda, a fireman climbing a ladder, and the Queen packing a shotgun. This one was my favourite of the bunch.

Gotcha! Now Who's Scared? Crazy Good Scarecrow - Isle of Skye, Scotland
Talisker Bay, a beautiful beach edged with an impressive sea stack on one side and sheer cliffs with a waterfall on the other, was our destination for sunset. We found a peacock-patrolled parking spot, from which we walked the track through a herd of mildly panicked sheep (someone had let their dog off the leash) to the sea. The beach itself was made of large black pebbles piled over black and white sand which, mix together, formed incredible patterns. Unfortunately our timing for sunset was off by a few hours, and we whiled away the afternoon poking around the rocks, chatting, reading and playing with the ten-stop filter on the camera.

10 Stop fun of Talisker Bay's sea stack - Isle of Skye, Scotland
While sunset was a disappointment (too much cloud), dinner at the pub a stone's throw from our hostel was good local fare washed down with a few drams of Island and Highland whiskey. We are starting to get a taste for the scotch varieties, on the rocks, with dash of water, or simply neat. The smokey peat of the local Talisker was an acquired taste though.

The next morning we visited the Old Mann of Storr. The formations include a series of huge needle-like rocks jutting out of the hills. The lighting started to work its magic as it broke through rolling mist and shifting rain clouds; this dry-stone wall covered in lichen stood out in the grassy landscape.

Glamaig is the northernmost of the Red Hills on the Isle of Skye. Taken with a nice lichen covered dry stone wall in the foreground. - Isle of Skye, Scotland
The wind picked up and started to really throw the rain about. There was no way I was going to see anything when I walked up to the Old Man itself. Here is the clearest shot I was able to take of it, it was a challenge just keeping the camera dry.

The old men of man of storr on an overcast day - Isle of Skye
Working our way back down to the car I was side-tracked (as usual) by the dramatic clouds and awesome lighting on tufts of grass.

Near the old men of man of storr on an overcast day when the sun finds a place to shine. - Isle of Skye
But boy was it windy! We could hardly talk to each other, and had to lean into the wind in order to stay upright.

Windy day on Isle of Skye, Scotland
Finishing our loop around the island we left Skye and headed north. The drive was fantastic with lots of beautiful lochs, streams and rugged terrain, ending at the bottom of a rainbow at Ullapool, tasting a few wee Lowland and Speyside drams.

The view from Duntulm Castle window -  Isle of Skye

Just another dry stone wall I think along Little Loch Broom

Fishing for gold at the end of the rainbow - Ullapool
North again, we hugged the coast as much as we could finding lots of reasons to stop along the way, such as castle ruins, prehistoric cairns, highland cows, waterfalls and the odd boat, eventually making it to the town of Durness.

The view over The falls Of Mesach

The moody Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt

A small waterfall off Loch Assynt

Highland Cows - Somewhere along Highway B869

Boats along highway B869
Durness beach was particularly photographic and I enjoyed the huge expanse of sand dunes behind it covered with shimmering swathes of grass.

Skipping on the beach - Balnakeil, Durness

The sand Dunes behind the beach at Balnakeil, Durness
Alas, we had to turn around eventually. Starting south we passed Ben Hope and Ben Loyal. Consequentially I became the subject of some bad "dad jokes". We broke up the journey at Invergorden, where repaired oil rigs live alongside the latest in giant wave-energy converters, and where our hotel hosts quickly showed us our rooms before running off for some fly fishing. Who could blame them.

The view accross Loch Eriboll

Ben Hope on the far Right, Ben Loyal on the Left

A cool boat hours on Loch Loyal
It was our last day in bonny Scotland, and after a good sleep-in and a haggis-heavy breakfast, we continued our drive south. Blair Castle Gardens offered bagpipe tunes and an early lunch, a walk in Diana's Grove (home to some of the tallest fir trees in Great Britain) and Hercules garden, featuring a lake built especially for freezing over in the winter for some lord or lady to have a go at curling.

Blair Castle

Flower in Hercules garden at Blair Castle Gardens
We still had not been on a distillery tour yet, an unforgivable omission that we remedied quickly by pulling into the Dalwhinnie establishment and signed up for the next session. Turned out to be an educational and entertaining experience topped off with a wee dram and some fine chocolates.

With 200 miles still left to go we had to detour around Edinburgh, to Tia’s disappointment. We did however find time to check out one last distillery with a cheeky stop at Glenkinchie, our priorities obviously in order.

Glenkinchie distillery
The blood-alcohol tolerance levels of the local driving laws prevented another distillery stop before we finally crossed the border back to England. Hope to see you again someday Scotland.

Windfarm on the hills around Edinburgh

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