A familiar old Mass Hibsteria fanzine phrase and one that is very apt at this time. I’ve spent the afternoon following The Hibees progress at Ibrox against a Rangers team who scored an excellent 3-0 victory in Europe during the past week. I use methods like Radio Scotland on the net and/or the Sporting Life text coverage along with the Hibs messageboards – anything in fact that keeps me in contact with Hibs’ fortunes down here in Nottingham.
The parish of Durness is one of my favourite destinations in Scotland. This would be a full day’s visit from Ullapool but again very much worth the while. The journey on the coastal road is worth the trip alone. One leaves Wester Ross and enters the county of Sutherland on this road and the scenery does take on a quite different aspect from the sights of the Assynt district around Ullapool. I believe the rock is called Pink Gneiss. Driving along through it does remind one slightly of being on the moon and let it be remembered that the area is officially classed as a word desert area.
A quick sight you may want to see is but a few miles up the road frmo Ullapool on the coastal road at Elphin. Standing alone to the right of the road are the Elphin Tearooms. There’s usually a coach party or two there – one of those places to ignore you may think. Look beyond that thought for a minute however if Golden Eagles interest you – you will almost certainly be guaranteed view of the lord of the skies above and beyond the tea room. They’re quite an awe-inspiring and majestic sight and one I always like to associate with the Highlands of Scotland. Along the road you’ll pass by pretty villages occasionally such as the Nordic-named Kyleskue with it’s proud new bridge. You may want to head straight to Durness however as there lays a wonderful visit ahead of you.
Sango Bay, Durness
The pictures above almost do Durness justice but not quite! Huge sheer cliffs, sea birds such as puffins and white sandy beaches complete a heavenly scene. Perhaps don’t look for a central village in Durness as there really isn’t one, just scattered homes and the odd businesses here and there in true parish style. A must see in Durness is Smoo Cave which I believe is the second largest in the UK. Walk inside it and explore or take one of the boat trips into the huge cavern.
A little-known fact about Durness is that John Lennon used to visit here regularly as a youngster as he had family there. I believe a cousin still stays there.
Before leaving the area might I suggest a rather unusual visit? Balnakeil Craft Village lies just west of Durness. It’s a World War II military encampment that is now used by various artists and craftsmen selling their wares. A very intriguing wander can be had around the little walk-in studios of this isolated community before heading back south to Ullapool.
Ullapool is a large fishing community situated on the North West coast in Ross-shire. It’s large enough to provide shops, hotels, pubs, restaurants etc. It’s small enough to walk on foot but for the folks you might want to consider accommodation near-ish the harbour as most of the facilities centre around that area. The main appeal of Ullapool is its practicality and its pretty aspect by Loch Broom. There are many interesting places to drive to from the village whilst using it as a base but there are a couple of things around you may want to look up.
The Ullapool Museum and Visitor Centre is well worth a visit just along from The Ceilidh Place. Small but packed full of interesting and touching memories of the Highland Clearances, when local crafting people were evicted from and burnt out of their homes and faced a new life by sailing over the Atlantic Ocean to Canada and America. The story is told lovingly here. The Corrieshalloch Gorge situated on the main road a few miles south of Ullapool is not to be missed. Drop by the lay by, step over the road and onto the suspension foot bridge. You’ll be looking down onto this view from several hundred feet:
Generally speaking, Ullapool is a nice place to while some relaxing time away. The harbour is a fascination and from there y one can also take various trips to view seals and bird life etc. It’s also a main dock for Caledonian McBrayne Ferries there being a crossing over to the Isle of Lewis, Part of the Hebridean Islands. Its a few hours on the boat, and not cheap, however. I wouldn’t recommend it for your trip on this occasion.
A few miles north on the main coastal road take you to Achiltibuie. The area has an outstanding view over to the Summer Isles, particularly at sunset, quite magical. It has an award-winning hotel with good food and views too. The Hydroponicum is another enjoyable visit. Some quite unlikely sights for Northern Scotland will greet you in here! Don’t forget to visit the local Achiltibuie smokehouse to buy your peat-smoked kippers…
Eating and drinking
I can thoroughly recommend the Ceilidh Place Hotel a block behind the harbour as a nice visit on and evening for food drinks or coffee. The Morefield Hotel at first glance doesn’t look terribly promising. It’s reached by driving through a small residential area a few minutes drive north out of the main village. If you enjoy fresh seafood however this is the place for you! Dining is basically in standard hotel bar or in the superior restaurant. The fact that both are crowded with customers most evenings speaks for itself. Facing the harbour with beautiful views is The Ferry Inn. You’ll find impromptu music nights in here with Scottish folk musicians bringing their instruments along for a sing-song. To be recommended.
Gairloch is a nice day visit from Ullapool, perhaps with another stop or two along the way. The road between the two villages along the coast has been rated as one of the top six drives in the world. By anybodies standards it is a truly beautiful journey. Look out for views of the magnificent An teallach. Of note is the arresting sight of Gruinard Bay, a long horseshoe-shaped sandy bay looking over to Gruinard Island. The latter became infamous during the last war as a biological warfare testing base by military scientists resulting in its nickname ‘Anthrax Island’. It’s uninhabited for obvious reasons so you won’t be popping over there for a visit. Do stay for refreshments and splendid sea air at beautiful Gruinard Bay however – most worthwhile.
Another pleasant visit in the district of Gairloch is Inverewe Gardens near Poolewe. The large grounds were the brainchild of Osgood McKenzie who made full use of the Gulf Stream’s protective climate.
Gairloch itself has a pretty harbour and some nice shops and places to eat. Round to the south of the Loch sits Badachro with its ancient inn overlooking the sailing boats in the harbour. Further along at the road ends lies glorious Redpoint. On my last visit, there stood a single hotel and a few homes. The real beauty is in the fabulous beach of white sand. Redpoint is yet another point of past emigration and has its own tales to tell. Now though all that remains is Redpoint’s emptiness and vast natural beach which can resemble a lunar landscape.
Beach at Redpoint
I’d make the suggestion of Plockton as a lunch stop on the way to Ullapool perhaps. This is one of the most attractive villages one is likely to see anywhere – indeed it is often billed as Scotland’s prettiest village. Plockton is basically a long curving bay lined with palm trees due to the temperate climate provided by the Gulf Stream that this area of Scotland benefits from. Out in the bay sits an island which adds to the visual appeal. Plockton was renowned as the setting for a British comedy drama series called ‘Hamish Macbeth’ – the comedic and wry tales of a Highland policeman which was highly rated a few years back.
Applecross takes a little effort to get to but is well worth it. It’s a possibility as a visit on your way to Ullapool but probably more practical to take a day out from Ullapool and perhaps combine it with a visit to Gairloch (more of later). The road over to the peninsula is most memorable and known as ‘The Pass of the Cattle. It’s an old droving road over the mountains where Highland farmers would have their livestock taken to lowland markets, much like the spectacular Mam Ratagan Pass over to Glenelg. The pass is narrow, steep and has sharp switchbacks, it’s unlikely that you’ll forget this journey!
Once past the viewpoint at the hilltop with fantastic views over the bay, one drops down into the small village tucked neatly in by the waterside. There’s a lovely old inn here to take lunch.
From the village of Applecross I’d suggest a drive north around the peninsula. There really are wonderful views as you take the road which hugs the bay. Along the road can be seen ancient ruined crofts as the migrants to Canada left them in the 1800s’, a very touching and humbling experience as you imagine what went through those poor people’s minds before they left their homeland for ever.
Further on are some quite spectacular, wide sweeping beaches of white sand. You can have them practically to yourself too!
Some of you will be familiar with this tiny Highland village though many are unaware of its location and appeal. Allow me to introduce you to Glenelg, one of the true hidden gems of Scotland. From the main ‘road to the Isles’ up the west coast an abrupt turn over Shiel Bridge takes us onto the Mam Rattagan pass which is a totally memorable drive, albeit not for the faint-hearted. Make sure and take a peak from behind the wheel at the fabulous viewpoint offering views over to The Five Sister’s of Kintail mountains due east, a sight to behold.
The Five Sisters of Kintail
The road is used for logging purposes but once featured herds of cattle and their drovers who were charged with the task of fording the Sounds of Sleat with their cattle on the journey from Skye to lowland market places. General Wade (or was it Thomas Telford?) dropped by this way too and constructed the odd military bridge along the road now taking the weight of logging lorries to its credit. At various intervals there are passing places and the odd barrier shielding the tight corners and sheer drops but not everywhere by any means so keep a sober head!
After the drama of the pass, the road descends through entirely pleasant pasture land and into the village. It was here on my first visit that I spotted a large imposing white house on the left which had been Glenelg’s former manse. Here would be my abode for the next week.
Before actually entering the village there is yet another sight to be aware of, the Hanoverian barracks which sits in scrubland to the left of the road. Upon my last visit the much ignored building surround by wire fencing had lost none of its interest due to the effect of the neglect offered it. Although fenced off from the public, I just had to crawl through a hole in the cordon and take a closer look at this scene of activity during the past. Apparently Bonnie Prince Charlie’s troops had commandeered the building during the time of the ’45 rebellion – how could anyone with a trace of romance in their soul drive past such an artifact of a different age?
Glenelg boasts but one watering hole – The Glenelg Inn. Boswell and Johnson recorded their disappointment at their lodgings in the hostelry in their separate tomes. The fact that the intrepid two were hugely disappointed at their place of rest after a hard day tramping on pony back over the pass need not deter the reader or potential visitor. Boswell’s mention of ‘rough rushes on the floor to sleep upon’ has changed slightly in the modern era.
On my last visit to the gorgeous Glenelg Inn I enjoyed a fantastic night with the locals after a sit in the atmospheric back garden peering over the silvery Sound towards Skye a very short distance away. The tales were of a few pretty wild nights where Klondikers would follow Boswell’s tradition by sleeping on the floor, usually after copious amounts of alcohol of course! The Glenelg Inn is not to be missed.
Perhaps the two things that Glenelg is best known for are its excellent examples of Pictish Brochs – ancient funnel-shaped dwellings. Dun Telve and Dun Todden are secreted away up a very quiet lane running through woodland. Their aspect helps to aid the imagination in thinking about those days 2000 years before Christ and the way these ancient and hardy people lived.
From the village during the summer months there is a small ferry service over to Skye which is not to be missed. The service carries a handful of cars and their passengers and takes but a few minutes to cross to Kylerhea.
Although the Sound of Sleat appears benign to the casual observer, a memory of mine is of a TV documentary in which a Royal Navy officer was offered the opportunity to use his skills in crossing the Sound by directing the ferry. The good officer found himself some way down stream as he struggled to master the currents between the mainland and the island much to his embarrassment!
My advice is for all that can to visit Glenelg at least once if possible. Please be aware that you will be back to this rare little corner of Scotland however.
Other places of interest locally:
On the 14th August 1773 James Boswell and Samuel L Johnson embarked upon an 83 day tour of the Highlands recording their observations towards their destination of Skye. Whilst not attempting to emulate their tremendous but somewhat formalised view of their journey, mine has been a great pleasure over the years in touring the Highlands of the country I love and I’d like to relate some of my own observations of the area.
It wasn’t a single tour as such, but rather a culmination of many, collated as a suggested holiday for a good friend interested in seeing a selection of the glorious landscape. For ease’s sake I have split the tour into separate sections as all of the places I talk about are, for me, very precious and special ones.
Now enjoy the road to the Isles…