3/7/10 - 9/12/10 0 °C
On Wednesday we started the John O’Groats to Ullapool drive; a 170 mile drive around the top end of Scotland – we travelled the North & West Highland Tourist Route which follows the coast. This was a very scenic route but the Scottish weather ensured that most photos were misty or raining. The drive was at times difficult as much of the route was single lane with ‘passing places’. These passing places were a courtesy situation that relied on you seeing an oncoming car and stopping in a ‘passing place’ (widened section of road – like a python that had eaten a chicken – which were spaced about 200-300m apart), you flashed your lights to indicate that you would stop to allow the other car through.
So leaving John O’Groats we stopped first a few miles down the road at Drunnet Head (the actual most northerly point of mainland UK). It gets very windy here as they need to lash the information kiosk to the ground. While the scenery was at times spectacular the drive was long and tiring in the wet. Things were looking up as we reached Ullapool as the drizzle cleared and we had a nice afternoon walking around the pretty seaside village – we even had an opportunity to watch the precision by which the ferry line quickly disembarked motorcyclists, cars, trucks, semi-trailer, bicyclists and passengers from the Isle of Lewis before embarking the same and departing all within 40 minutes.
The Ullapool Youth Hostel was clean and very busy with all of the 57 beds filled. The self catering kitchen was very busy as were the bathrooms. It’s amazing to see the cross-section of people who stay at the hostels – a few people like Liz and I, many cyclists who stay for the night and then continue their trip the next day, families (especially from the Europe) who were spending their summer holidays touring around Scotland and lastly the minority group of young backpackers.
Thursday awoke feeling very doughy (lots of moving around with strange beds and pillows = poor night’s sleep) however we were on the road again for the shorter drive to Ratagan, but before we left Ullapool we decided to do a walk up Ullapool Hill only a 4km round trip. The distance wasn’t a problem but the climb was a struggle for me but Liz powered on to the top. I struggled on the way up from lack of fitness and on the way down from dicky knees, but we made it all the way down.
The drive to Ratagan was only about 90 miles via the coastal scenic route but along the way we had a few stops. Firstly at Corrieshallock Gorge which we thought might be a fair walk from the road but turned out to be downhill and only 350m. This gorge is amazing and, for Liz, a little scary. The gorge is spanned by a suspension bridge only about 20m across but suspended 45m above the gorge cascade below. The bridge swayed a fair bit as you crossed as well as having a six person limit – I probably didn’t help Liz’s fear of height by making the bridge sway more as we crossed over it. Checkout the photo below taken from an observation point further down the gorge – look for the people crossing the bridge near the top of the picture.
After this short walk it was back into the car and a hour and a half drive to Eilean Donan Castle (as seen in the movie Highlander and more recently Maid of Honour with Patrick Dempsey). This turned out to be a little under-whelming but perhaps that is because of the high quality castles we’ve visited over the past 3 weeks or perhaps we’re castled out! The tide was also out so it looked a little stark and desolate – the tides vary in the metre so when it is out the castle is really stranded.
Anyway we eventually made it to Ratagan YHA which was a little isolated but was right on the edge of a Loch. It was a little smaller than Ullapool, about 40 beds, but at least the bathroom and shower was next door. So it’s nearly 9.30pm and the sun has disappeared behind so substantial mountains to our rear but it is still very light but I’m stuffed and going to bed anyway. Tomorrow we’re off to the Isle of Skye for a drive around and look-see.
Friday – so stuffed slept the night through, ignored the alarm and call of nature to eventually rise at 8.00am. Today we were driving around the Isle of Skye off the North West of Scotland before returning to Ratagan. The day was lousy, it reminded me of the rain god from the Douglas Adams book (always raining just varying in type).
Liz has a passion for otters so today she wanted to visit an otter sanctuary on the Isle of Skye. This part of our day felt like it might have been our last moments on earth. Again on very narrow roads that were winding and had hidden crests and dips added to the fact that there was a 900ft drop on one side. Did I say it was wet, no very wet! And only seven miles of road but the worst part was that it was a dead end so we had to come back on it. Luckily we could laugh about it, hysterically yes but still laughing.
So we made it to the car park, donned the wet weather gear, fought off the midges and followed the sign “otter hide 1km” eventually reaching a small building overlooking the Loch Aish between Kyle and Kyleakin. The only problem was that 2 families had taken up all the spaces and binoculars and showed no sign of moving on, so after 30 minutes we decided to head back to the car and drive that cursed road. I must say we did see a few common seas but no otters had been sighted in a couple of days so Liz’s otter quest will continue (she can’t even visit them in the zoos as those otters come from Asia???).
As the day was so poor we decided to forgo the trekking and have a leisurely drive around the Isle visiting Broadford, Portree, Staffin, Duntulm, and my favourite Uig. Had a lunch break in a Portree cafe, like every other tourist – the place was packed regardless of the weather. We also saw our first car accident a little sedan roll over – wet road, tight corner and speed will do it every time. It’s amazing we haven’t seen more considering the narrow roads and crazy speeding drivers we’ve seen.
Anyway tomorrow we journey to the home of the monster – Loch Ness (unfortunately I’ve heard that like everybody else he/she’s gone on summer holidays!).
Saturday – Ratagan to Beauly
Just a little hop today as the rigours of all the travel catch up with us. Only about 60 miles to drive but we still had a couple of stops to make. The weather was poor in the morning – nothing like packing the car in the rain however by 1.00pm the rain had stopped and the sun occasionally showed through –temperature was 12oC at 9.00am but had made 16oC by mid-afternoon.
Our first stop today was Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness which was a castle ruins. The experience involved a video presentation outlining the history of the castle from AD 560 up until it was destroyed and abandoned so the Jacobites didn’t get it. The MacDonald clan seemed to keep attacking it frequently as they attacked from the Isles to the north. The facilities and presentation of the ruins was definitely aimed at the tourist market – the walk through the gift shop was necessary to get to the exit.
Next we visited the Loch Ness exhibition shop looking for some souvenirs’ but we couldn’t be bothered actually walking through the exhibition – too tired. So picked up a t-shirt and ceramic Nessie and checked out the huge displays of everything Nessie before heading the 10miles to our overnight stay – The Caledonian Hotel (cheap but tidy room) in Beauly, just west of Inverness.
We are now into the part of our trip for which we haven’t booked accommodation, it’s near impossible to get a private room in a hostel or any reasonably priced self catered accommodation. Consequently we will sometimes have to spend a little more for hotel/motel type accommodation just to have somewhere to stop for the night. The European summer is holiday time for everyone, so many families, couples and groups are moving everywhere – also lots of motor-homes about many on the single lane roads which sometimes make things interesting.