August 2017
  • Day18

    Wild, wild west

    August 22, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ 🌧 16 °C

    Our last day in the Highlands. A choice between another day amongst the stunning mountains travelling through the eastern Cairngorms region or a wild west adventure following rugged coastlines and ancient mountain formations. We chose the latter and headed off in the direction of the Wester Ross route. This region includes some of the oldest mountains on earth (Torridonian rock is more than 600 million years old).

    Passing through the majestic Glen Shiel region, we soon found ourselves in sight of the breath-takingly beautiful Eilean Donan castle. Touted as Scotland's most romantic castle, it's easy to see why it has gained this reputation. Built at the confluence of 3 lochs, it provided a strategic vantage point for its numerous occupants. A stronghold for the Jacobites (mainly Catholic Highlanders), it was destroyed on 1719 by English warships. Restoration in the 19th century by a couple of highly passionate locals resulted in the amazing displays today.

    Much of the rest of the day was spent negotiating the many single-lane roads that follow the western coastline and traverse the mountain ranges linking meadowed valleys. One spectacular mountain pass was Bealach Na Ba. Apparently featured on an episode of Top Gear, our little Fiat ably traversed the many twists and turns along this precipitous route. The view at the top was well worth the sometimes hair-raising experience, with marsh-covered mountain tops and spectacular ocean views.

    Tiny villages nestled amongst the many coastal inlets dotted our route. Naturally, a sampling of the local ice cream was a must. It's hard to imagine making a living in such a small community, but it seemed to us that many were managing just fine in their little slice of paradise. Indeed, our contribution to the local economy continued with the purchase of some locally caught and smoked ocean trout - a simple an easy dinner after a long day on the road.

    No visit to the Highlands is complete without an up-close-and-personal experience with the local cuties - Highland cattle. These large hairy beasts are quite content to munch roadside verges as yet another tourist snaps away.
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  • Day17

    A road (or two) less travelled

    August 21, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ☀️ 16 °C

    I've always wanted to visit Scotland. Blame it on my Scottish godmother. Or perhaps it's simply that I like wild places and had envisaged Scotland's western and northern coasts to fit that category. While Scotland is a relatively small country, as in New Zealand it takes longer to drive anywhere than you expect. This is partly due to it's narrow, winding roads, but equally the result of its awe-inspiring scenery - it's not a place to experience at pace.

    I'd read of the scenic route to Ullapool in the north-west, and beyond, a path we considered would be less travelled than those of the previous few days. We were not disappointed. First stop was the beautiful village of Stathpeffer, a former Victorian spa town where folk had come to "take the waters". A mix of Victorian splendour and Pictish history, we spent a pleasant hour or so exploring this lovely place.

    Arriving at the pretty white-washed town of Ullapool, we discovered that a true treasure lay just to the north of gateway to the island of Lewis. The North-West Highlands Geopark was awarded to the region based on it's unique and turbulent geological past, which has shaped its stunning mountain landscapes, sandy beaches, ancient settlements and contemporary communities. A well-marked route highlights the geological stories behind the stunning landscape.

    One such highlight was Knockan Crag, location of some of the oldest rocks in the world and one of the most significant scientific discoveries in recent times. An excellent interactive display combines with awe-inspiring views to tell the the story of how two men challenged the 19th century scientific norms of the time with their theories of geological processes. Knockan Crag provided the proof for their theory.

    Another highlight of the Geo Park route was an excursion to the Bone Caves, where remains of some of of Scotland's "lost animals" (bears, wolves, reindeer) were found.

    Intent on reaching the lighthouse at Stoer Point before we turned for home, we reached this remote point after mile after after mile of narrow, single lane tracks through stunning coastal heathland. Our adventurous return trip (amazing where a wrong turn can take you) meant a late dinner was to be had.

    A hugely satisfying day amongst these most beautiful surroundings.
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  • Day16

    A day of false starts (& a happy ending)

    August 20, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ☀️ 14 °C

    Not wanting to venture too far, we'd set our sights on a visit to nearby Fort Augustus and possibly a Nessie hunt on the loch. Alas, Sunday proved a popular day with the locals (especially on that rare day when the sun is actually shining), so this tiny town was bursting at the seams and not a car park within cooee.

    A change of plans - to the coastal port of Mallaig via a promised scenic route (the "Road to Isles" tour). After passing through some pretty ordinary towns, (although the Bridge of Oich was interesting), a quick stop at the less-than-impressive Neptunes staircase (OK so it was an engineering marvel of mutliple locks and might have looked better with flowing water), the "scenic" drive finally kicked in just before the Glennfinnian monument. Commemorating those who rose in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, nevertheless he clearly hadn't planned for parking and once again we by-passed this bursting-at-the seams tourist attraction as we made our way west.

    The traffic thinned, the mountains grew more and more imposing - it was easy to imagine the challenges that would have faced settlers and explorers alike in this mountainous region. Arriving at the pretty port of Malaig (gateway to a number of the western islands), we briefly contemplated the ferry to the Isle of Skye as a loop route home, only to discover said ferry was fully booked. Undaunted, we fortified ourselves with ice cream and retraced our path, intent on a less populace region on the morrow.
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  • Day15

    Heading north

    August 19, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    Departing Glasgow in our zippy Fiat 500 we decided to head north east towards Stirling, en route to a cottage just out of Glenmoriston, where we'd spend the next 5 nights amongst the glens, lochs and munros of the Scottish Highlands.

    First stop was the truly impressive Falkirk Wheel, an elegant rotating boat lift which gently swings boats between the Forth and Clyde canals, lifting boats to a height of 35m (equivalent to 11 traditional boat locks), all in just 15 minutes. Also impressive were 2m high metallic sculptures of horses heads, which we were soon to discover were mere models of the real things. We chanced upon "The Kelpies" , fantastic 30m high horse head sculptures, which overlook significant new developments in Scotland's all-important canal system. Horses have traditionally played a significant role in the region, drawing barges of coal, iron ore and goods from regional centres to key industrial cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh.

    Taking a considerable step back in time we then explored Rough Castle, where part of the Antonine Wall is highly visible amongst the vestiges of this Roman fort. Built around AD140, when Romans invaded Scotland (for the second time), the 60km long earth rampart wall and associated ditches and forts aimed to keep the locals out of what was considered Roman territory.

    As usual we'd planned too much into our day and after a quick wander around the beautifully preserved town of Culross, we headed towards our cottage via the pretty Trossachs region and the utterly awe-inspiring Glencoe area. The cloud and drizzle that had characterised much of our time in Scotland was a perfect complement to the craggy peaks and tumbling waters. Settled into our cosy cottage we made a plan of attack for the next few days. So much to see and so little time!
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  • Day14

    Sailing blues

    August 18, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ 🌧 13 °C

    The gale force 7 winds arrived with a fury earlier than predicted and we were forced to battle our way towards the island of Mull. Our anticipated 3 hour sail turned into a marathon as we waged war against large seas, torrential rain and a bad-tempered skipper. Abandoning our planned anchorage we pulled into the nearest safe harbour and waited. An altercation with the skipper left us feeling fragile and confused. Clearly he'd missed the customer service part of his skipper training.

    After a 2 hour delay as the skipper replaced fan belts, we set off for what would be our last days sail. Thursday's weather forecast promised little more than Wednesday, but the protection offered within the Sound of Mull made for much improved sailing conditions all round. We escaped ashore once anchored in the pretty harbour of Port Aline. A long walk through the local arboretum and a visit to the impressive Archimedes screw powering a local hydro scheme proved restorative. White-washed houses glistened in the bright sunshine, recent rains adding to the spectre. A pint at the local and it was back on board for a tasty meal (at least skipper was an excellent cook).

    More inclement weather forecast limited our anchorage options next day and the skipper announced we'd be heading back to the marina for our last night on board. With little option for further exploration of the islands we decided to cut our losses and head back a day early. I managed to bring our car hire and accommodation forward a day so we could end this somewhat disappointing phase of our Scottish holiday.

    Arriving back in Glasgow some hours later, we drowned our sorrows in several glasses of red wine and reflected on the beauty of the Western isles and how wonderful it was sail to amongst them. And of course our Highland adventure was about to begin!
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  • Day11

    Isle of Muck

    August 15, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ 🌧 17 °C

    Today would be one of the highlights of our entire trip - a visit to the tiny island of Muck. One of the Small Isles, it offered us a safe haven from the southerly winds that were building and that would strike with gale force the next day (as would the skipper's mood). A glorious days sail, with Richard at the helm for much of time, we arrived to clear skies and a light wind. The nearby island of Eigg impressed with its sheer cliffs. Heading ashore with a packed lunch and skip in our steps, we ventured out towards the local seal colony, providing at least one inquisitive fellow with a seal's-eye view as we sat munching our sandwiches. Satiated, we decided to follow the track to the village of Fort Mor and the promise of a proper coffee. With no limits on where you can walk, we've really enjoyed the freedom that comes with tramping in Scotland. Mind you, it was fortuitous that our skipper mentioned that tracks drawn on our map were not well marked. It was more the case of walking across fields in the general direction of where you think you should be heading. The absence of virtually any vegetation above a metre helps too!

    The village offered passable coffee and a lovely view. A recently established fish farm is providing hope for the dwindling population and several new buildings had been constructed in keeping with the more traditional style. The sense of remoteness pervaded, especially as we followed the path to an ancient fort perched above the dramatic coastline. The sheer beauty of this rural wilderness, the colours and shapes, took our breath away. Rugged cliffs provided a training ground for diving crows. Reminders of past cultures appeared in the form of crudely carved stones amongst more contemporary graves. We felt this was a truly special place.
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  • Day10

    It's an ill wind that blows no good

    August 14, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    Setting sail in light rain, we headed for the isolated Dorlin Bay, a pretty mainland bay opposite the limestone-dominated region of Lismore. A lack of wind meant our first venture out into island waters was under motor. Making way along the Sound of Mull, before too long we were settled into our anchorage for the night. Grey seals wallowed on the rocky shore, the occasional body twist or fin flick the only evidence that these were anything more than sausage shaped rocks (at least from a distance). As we approached their resting place, dark eyes viewed us warily.

    Heading ashore for a walk in the now sunny evening skies my so-I-discovered non-waterproof tramping shoes were soon taking on water in the moist and often swampy undergrowth. Unfortunately a misinderstanding about the need for waterproof shoes meant I was ill-equipped for island walking. I was to spend the next 4 days walking on water! Vestiges of past lives greeted us as we made our way along the coastline, the shores awash in the orange glow of tide-stranded seaweed. Several species of heather and other wildflowers painted the hills various hues of pink and yellow. Aside from oyster catchers and seagulls, our only fauna sightings were of a dead mole and dead shrew, both apparently drowned in the heavy downpour. As we settled in for the evening the tone of the voyage started to reveal itself - that of a self-absorbed skipper with little interest in his guests, who's single-mindedness would taint our experience and make us relish the end of the journey. But not before we visited the beautiful island of Muck.
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  • Day9

    Sailing into the unknown

    August 13, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    Our first week in Scotland focused on a taste of what Glasgow and Edinburgh had to offer. As we boarded our train for the coastal town of Oban, our thoughts turned to the week ahead, which we would spend on board the 42 foot yacht Saltwater Gypsy, with skipper David and 2 further guests. At least that's what we thought! Our arrival in Oban was greeted with briliant sunshine and hordes of tourists enjoying this pretty seaside village, gateway to the inner and outer Hebrides Islands. With a wait of 4 hours until the appointed meeting time we decided to store our bags and stretch our legs. With bellies full of local fish and chips we headed to Dunstaffsage marina and awaited our host. David arrived at the appointed time, only to inform us that we were his only guests, that this was his second to last cruise before his retirement and that the weather forecast meant we would only be able to sail to one or two of the many islands that dot this yachties playground. Somewhat disappointed and slightly apprehensive at the thought of a week alone with this rather gruff Scotsman (with a confusingly English accent), we boarded the yacht for a night on the mooring. David laid down the rules (essential on a boat) and we settled in for a pleasant evening.Read more

  • Day8

    Edinburgh Tatoo

    August 12, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 13 °C

    Spectacular is a bit of an understatement for this fabulous event. Now in its 68th year, we joined 8000 people to watch more than 1200 pipe and drum band members, dancers and musicians from around the globe strut their stuff on the Edinburgh Castle esplanade. By comparison, the first Tattoo attracted a total 6000 spectators. It had poured during the day and we'd half expected the performance to be cancelled. Amazingly the skies cleared and the moon shone through. In fact not a single performance of the Tattoo has ever been cancelled! The castle walls provided the perfect backdrop for the amazing projections that added to the splendour of the performances. A truly magical experience.Read more

  • Day7

    Edinburgh Castle

    August 11, 2017 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 15 °C

    The great rock on which Edinburgh Castle is sited has been occupied for at least 3000 years, its position offering a natural defence against unwanted visitors. Edinburgh was a royal centre by 1093 and has always been seen as a place of military strength. Its structures have been rased to the ground on numerous occasions, only to rise again as new occupants make their mark. The layering of cultures and societies that have made the castle their home is evident in the many excellent displays presented throughout the castle complex. As expected, the castle was over-run with tourists, so we resigned ourselves to a day of queuing in the drizzle (and sometimes downpour) that has thus far characterised the Scottish summer for us.Read more