I’ve recently returned from the first of two short holidays across the border planned for 2017. This first trip – on which I was joined by an 89-year old avowed lover of all things Scottish (my wonderful gran) and partner-in-crime lover of prosecco & cream buns (my equally wonderful mum) – started with a 12-hour road trip to Strathpeffer, way up in the Highlands. Strathpeffer is a small old spa town in the county of Ross, with a restored Victorian pavilion, post office, deli, craft shop..and little else. But it was a pleasant base for our stay, and close to two attractions: the Eagle Stone and Castle Leod.
The former is a Pietish symbol stone dating from around the 7th century. According the local legend, a Brahan Seer prophesied that if the stone fell three times then the waters would dry up and ships would be grounded. It’s fallen twice, so the locals have taken the pragmatic move of securing it firmly to the ground with concrete. Take that, Nostradamus. Getting to the stone demanded some daring off-roading with my grandma’s wheelchair and a rather tiring uphill push. To those in a similar predicament, I would say give it a miss. Imagine a rock with the faintest outline of a bird, whilst you sit in the village tea room with a scone and cuppa. Castle Leod, with its long dirt and gravel driveway, was a similar ambitious outing, but certainly worth the visit. The small but perfectly-formed castle is the Seat of the Clan Mackenzie, and has been continually lived in by the Earl of Cromartie and his family for over 500 years. I was directed around by the current owner and particularly enjoyed looking through the family albums outside the dungeon!
We hadn’t come to see Strathpeffer, though. The purpose of the trip was to take in some of the gorgeous highland scenery and visit some of the more well-known sights. A train ride from nearby Dingwall to the Kyle of Lochalash provided the opportunity to do just that. The journey takes you through glens, lochs and moorland, past the Torridon Peaks and Achnashellach Forest, providing opportunities to spot deer, birds of prey and views of Ben Wyvis. Unfortunately, the weather was not our friend and for the first hour the rain and high tree line dampened our enjoyment of the ride. When the sun came out around Loch Luichart, however, and in particular for the final stretch towards Lochalsh, the views were spectacular. Still, my recommendation would be to travel by car if you can – as we did on the return leg – since the road is set above the track and tree line, offering a much better vantage point.
Having disembarked at the Kyle of Lochalsh, we treated ourselves to giant prawn and crab sandwiches from Buth Bheag seafood hut on the waterside, before nipping across the bridge to the Isle of Skye. Given our tight schedule, we only had time for a brief stop at Kyleakin, to take in the views of the lighthouse and Caisteal Maol; our main destination for the afternoon being Eilean Donan Castle, back on the mainland. I definitely want to return for a proper tour of Skye – it’s a stunning place, and we were lucky that the sun was out in full force by this point, shimmering off the water in the most bucolic way.
I was, however, very glad to have the opportunity to visit Eilean Donan in Dornie. It is hands-down the most dramatic, beautiful castle I’ve every seen. (And I’ve seen my fair share of castles, let me tell you.) Humour me for a minute, whilst I digress into more Gaelic tradition…this one about how the island on which the castle sits got its name. The story goes that a colony of otters once lived in the area; the King of Otters – who was easily recognisable by his coat of pure silver – having chosen it as his residence. When he died, his glittering robe was buried beneath what became the foundations of the castle, and so it is from the Gaelic for otter (Cu-Donn) that the island takes its name. Neat, huh? Who needs Games of Thrones? Anyway, we spent a lovely couple of hours exploring the ruins and restored battlements, enjoying the views down Loch Duich, and chasing kilted men around (…for purposes only of the obligatory tourist photos, of course).
Our final morning was spent in the Cairngorms National Park, and specifically on Cairn Gorm itself (Gaelic for ‘Blue Mountain’). As we boarded the funicular railway, we were reminded that for most of human history the idea of going up a mountain for fun would have been considered madness. Their hostile climate and remoteness made them dangerous places, to be feared and avoided. I certainly have a healthy respect for them…particularly since my friend’s partner did serious damage to himself falling down a crevasse on Blencathra. Even in the modern age, with all our fancy engineering and equipment, the mountains are not our friends. Anyway, I can’t pretend we were very intrepid on this occasion…forgoing crampons for the ease of the funicular. Once 1,097m up and exposed to the elements, though, one could pretend to have conquered the beast. The views of Loch Morlich and Aviemore – and across to Ben Nevis in the far, far distance – were impressive, and as a bonus we spotted a small herd of reindeer meandering through the heather half-way up the mountain.
In the afternoon, after a short lunch stop in Inverness, we boarded the Jacobite Rebel for a boat trip on Loch Ness. Boarding at Dochgarroch Lock, we sailed up the Caledonian canal and into the loch itself. Nestled in the Great Glen, Loch Ness stretches for almost 22.6 miles and is the largest lake by volume in the UK, containing more than 1.6 trillion gallons of fresh water. That’s more freshwater than all the lakes in England and Wales combined! We passed Bona Lighthouse, Aldourie Castle, and the eerily atmospheric Urquhart Castle, but failed to spot Nessie…my grandma’s excited yelp turning out to be merely a exuberant seagull. 🙂
Part II of my Scottish adventures to follow shortly…