Day One – to Loch Duich
Day one, and we set out from York in Wesley (dad’s X-type) for our very long drive to the Scottish Highlands, more specifically Loch Duich, and a very lovely B&B (follow link), deep in the mountains about 25 miles south of the Skye Bridge.
We knew that there had been a bit of snow this winter, but we weren’t prepared for the full grandeur of the Highlands and for how cold it must have been all winter. Any water more than 100m above sea level was frozen, and the landscape resembled an Arctic wilderness.
8 hours and just under 400 miles later we pulled into the B&B near Loch Duich. This is an excellent winter location – at sea level, so accessible, just off the main road, and there’s a hotel near by which serves food all year round (we had only passed one other place in the previous forty miles). Also, the people were wonderfully friendly and the room excellent with one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept in!
Day Two – Loch Duich to Eabost West (Skye)
Day two and the holiday really began. Breakfast at the B&B was of epic proportions, including huge sausages made from (ex)-highland cows. We then had a brief walk up the valley side to gain a better vantage point for photographs of some of the thirty Munros in the area (although we decided not to climb any ourselves). Following this, we set off in the car towards the Isle of Skye, via the Kyle of Lochalsh, stopping off on the way at Eilean Donan Castle (apparently Scotland’s most photographed). This is closed for visitors during winter, but free access is maintained to the castle exterior.
Over the Skye bridge, which is now free from tolls, from Kyle of Lochalsh to the Isle of Skye is only a short crossing, but I wasn’t prepared for the full majesty of the island, which boasts more peaks over 3000 feet than the whole of England. We took a scenic detour to Elgol (B) on map, to marvel at the view, and to have a cup of tea in the cafe which is open all year round. The road is fantastic, and well worth the detour. A quick trip to Portree (the capital of the island) to pick up some expensive diesel (tip: get it in Dunvegan instead where the petrol station also serves bacon rolls and excellent tea/coffee and is much cheaper), and then we crossed over the interior of the island to reach Eabost West (which may be gaelic for western email…), and our next lovely B&B. This has a wonderful view over the sea loch, and rooms come equipped with binoculars for looking at the seals and seabirds which abound. You could use them to pick out the neighboroughing buildings, which are few and far between.
Day Three – walk to the Old Man of Storr, and around Skye in general
In the morning, we ate another hearty scottish breakfast (dad had kippers which are available on request), and set off for a gentle stroll along our local lochside looking for seals. Despite a false alarm when I took a photo of a suspiciously seal-shaped shiny rock, no seals were to be seen this morning, although we did see a goodly selection of seabirds including cormorants, geese and (I’m pretty sure) oyster catchers.
We then set off on a driving exploration, including a visit to Trumpan church, which is a beautiful ruin with lovely views over the sea to the Outer Hebrides of Harris and Lewis (B on map). A drive via Portree to Loch Leathan (oddly enough larger than Loch Fada nearby), should have been simple, except for the one hour forty mile detour we had to take (see northern loop on map) to avoid two miles of closed road!!
We then set out for the walk up to the Old Man of Storr (pictured), which is a 49m high pinnacle of rock at about 550m above sea level. We were unlucky to be caught in mist and gentle snow for periods of the walk, but blessed by the breaks in the cloud which allowed the amazing views to be seen (it was a photo of this view that inspired the trip in the first place).
The upper slopes were deep in snow (feet deep in drifts in places), but the path was fairly clear at all points.
By the time we descended we were in need of some dinner, which turned out to be difficult – Dunvegan has numerous hotels but none were serving non-residents at this time of year. Fortunately one recommended the Stein Inn, which is in Waternish of the Trumpan road (very much at the end of the world), but which serves a lovely local menu of sea food and other favourites. Serves all year round, reasonably priced, with a log fire. Lovely.
Day Four – Seals and Journey to Harris
This was to be another travelling day – with the Calmac taking us from Uig (oo-ig) to Tarbert on the Island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. In the morning, however, we took at trip to Dunvegan Loch (B) and had a closer look at some of the seals which make it their home. We then travelled to Uig and boarded the Calmac. Even at this time of year, car bookings are to be recommended (if only for convenience). There were only about 12 vehicles on the ferry and it made for a lovely quiet journey over to Harris.
The entrance to the harbour at Tarbert reminds me of entering ports in Norway – it is deep within the sea loch, and the route in is tortuous, avoiding numerous skerries and other rocky dangers! All the time, we had a marvellous view of the mountains of Harris and back to those on Skye. It was also clear enough to see the even larger mountains of the mainland, which stretch away as far as the eye could see.
Tarbert provided another B&B with a lovely view (Tigh na Mara (Mrs Flora Morison)), and the Harris Bar provided lovely evening food, and a very nice Scotch coffee (for dad).
Day Five – Exploring Lewis, ferry to Ullapool, Kylesku Hotel and Scourie B&B
Another day of travel – this time a quick road tour of the Isle of Lewis (the same land mass as Harris), including a trip to the furthest west we reached (58.2° N, 6.97° W), where i dabbled my feet in the Atlantic (B) – the beautiful white sand and blue green sea makes you think of the Med or the Caribbean, but the remnants of snow on the beach and water at less than 10°C reminds you that it isn’t!
We also made it by bridge to another skerry off the coast of Lewis (Bernera, C), which had yet more lovely views). From there it was an easy and quick drive to Stornoway (largest town we’d seen in a while) and the ferry to Ullapool. The crossing takes about 2 hrs 45 minutes, and we were blessed with a clear day, and the chance to watch the mountains of the north Highlands approach the whole length of the crossing. The last hour of the trip is entering the fjord that Ullapool sits within, and negotiating various rocky obstacles.
From there we drove north to Scourie (our destination for the evening), via a long scenic coastal detour (see loop on map), which takes about 20 minutes longer than you would perhaps like (it’s 20mph running a lot of the time), but which was rich in views of the Atlantic and with wildlife – there were deer everywhere. The deer are quite a hazard, particularly this year when there is little in the way of available vegetation and fresh water (too much snow and ice), and therefore if they’ve found grass near a road side they are not very inclined to get out of the way in a hurry.
Our evening meal involved our greatest find of the trip – the Kylesku hotel (D). This has new owners (including a French chef), and the new owners have already befriended Neil (the local fisherman), who provides them with the freshest seafood (I had mussels then spineys, which take some eating, and some getting over what they look like, but which are absolutely wonderful). The new owners have taken on a great task, since the hotel is down a side road, in a wonderfully beautiful location, but not good for passing trade. It is one to remember though, and well worth the trip if you are in the area, where excellent fresh local food, and good service are at your disposal. I should point out that it’s not just seafood – dad ate a venison burger, which was clearly local, handmade, and very fresh!
B&B in Scourie in the offseason is a little limited. The Scourie B&B where we stayed was excellent (the softest towels I’ve ever known), but a little pricey, since there is little competition at this time of year.
Day Six – The Journey home begins
At this point we had to begin our journey home. The far north of Scotland to Oxford is the best part of 750 miles, so we broke the trip into segments – to Glasgow, to York, and then me back to Oxford. First though, just to make it a little more difficult, we set off northwards. At this time of year, the far north west (Cape Wrath) is not accessible – the boat/minibus combo required does not run, so we chose Droman head as the most north west we could get to easily. This is at 58.5°N, 5°W, and is considerably nearer to Bergen in Norway than it is to my house in Oxford! Having walked to the end of the slipway, and taken some pictures of a large sea-eagle, we set off via Kylesku (to take a picture), Ullapool (better than via Lairg according to locals) and Aviemore back to Glasgow.
We reached Aviemore in glorious sunshine, with the Cairngorms covered in masses of snow – I had never appreciated how many big mountains there are in the area, and how vast the scale of the area is.
The journey continued onwards via the A86 to Fort William, and back along the A82 to the Etap hotel in Glasgow.
Day 7 – Back to York
This was a day of motorway driving, although a highlight was our snack brunch at the Llama Karma Cafe near Penrith.