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Published: September 16th 2009
..at its best!
Motorhome News from Europe 37.
Scotland 21st September 2005
A Royal Welcome to The Highlands. The final leg of our journey through Europe.
John O'Groats, Dunnett Head, The Castle of Mey, Lairg, Ullapool, Kinlochewe, Skye, Fort William and The English Lakes
There is a strange fascination with mountain-tops, places of legend and mystery and various ends of the earth that us Britons find difficult to resist. One such extremity is John O’Groats. Having arrived back on the Scottish mainland by ferry from Orkney rather late in the evening, we chose to stop at the nearest and most convenient campsite, a mile or two from the ferry, and probably the worst campsite experienced since we left home on the 1st June. Welcome home to the British mainland!
Contrary to popular belief - and mine too, John O’Groats is not the most northerly point on mainland Britain. That claim goes to Dunnnet Head, a pleasant walk over windy heather and bog a few miles to the west from the car park. John O’Groats’ honour comes from being at the top end of the longest distance between two points on the British mainland, measured from Lands End, around 850miles.
Near the top of Scotland
Those of you who have taken the exhaustive trouble to get there will recognise it if I describe it as an eclectic gathering of souvenir and craft shops dumped higgledy-piggledy on an acre or so of land beside a car park for a hundred cars and twenty coaches, and an uninspiring harbour with a hotel in need of a lot of TLC. That’s it in a hagis. To be fair, the walks either side of John O’Groats, at Dunnet Head and the dramatic cliffs off Duncansby Head, made the visit worthwhile.
We had been within half an hour’s drive of John O'Groats when visiting Scotland on two previous occasions and managed to resist the temptation both times. Now I know why. Half a mile away there is the equally uninviting village of John O’Groats, but it does sport a friendly post office stores where we managed to change our UK gas bottle and get some cash. Any offers for a surplus Norwegian gas bottle?
Shortly after King George V1 died, the Queen Mother bought a small castle nearby as a retreat from the public gaze. She visited The Castle of Mey every year since its purchase and renovation
Janice, at the most northerly point on the British mainland
in 1952. The property is now in Trust for the benefit of the people in the area and it is open to the public throughout the summer months. It would be difficult to compare the ‘Castle Mey’ experience with almost any other stately home visit. We were met at the door by a member of the Queen Mother’s staff who had lived there since she moved in. Her father had managed the farm on the estate, with its prize Aberdeen Angus herd and Cheviot sheep.
‘Do come in,’ she said, opening the door as though we were invited guests. ‘And where are you from?’ She then told us all about Her Majesty’s corgis, her visits to the house and about her last visit in 2001, shortly before she died. Goodness knows how she managed the steep spiral staircase to her bedroom at 100 plus! This was indeed home for The Queen Mother. The furniture came either from some of her other properties, local antique dealers or the sale- rooms and much of it had an air of the 1950’s: loose-covered squashy armchairs just like mother had, a rusty fridge with a broken handle, a stereo player and an ancient TV.
The Castle of Mey
The holiday home of The Queen Mother. A peek into her private bedroom
As we passed from room to room we were greeted by yet another ‘guide’ with a personal association with the castle, willing and enthusiastic to share their recollections and Her Majesty’s personal secrets; most respectfully of course. The house was full of so many personal items: presents from friends, family and the staff, packs of cards, fluffy pigs, Boggle and Cluedo for after tea, a new carpet from The Queen for her 90th Birthday, paintings by local artists, some watercolours by Charles and even an oil by Prince Phillip. All in all it was a lovely experience, an opportunity to meet the real person. She could just have been there, in front of the fire, doing her knitting and chatting to the dogs.
OK, we’re both Royalists - at least I shall be until Lizzie 11 retires. Charles is President of the Castle Hey Trust and he now comes here with Camilla for a week or so each summer to support the local Highland Games and the village art show, which I guess was grandmother’s wish. We weren’t invited to stay for dinner.
With two previous visits to the area over the years it was somewhat difficult to
find new routes to take us south. We struck lucky yet again as we headed inland from the east beside the River Shin, just above Dornoch Firth, through beautiful valleys, lush with ferns, bracken and golden gorse, broad bands of trees; birch, pine, larch and willow, rowan aflame with Regal-red berries and hillsides clothed in purple heather. It was many weeks since we last saw trees and suddenly we realised how much we had missed them. Lairg, en route, was an obvious place for a coffee stop along the road and enquiries brought us to The Bookshop, a purveyor of Christian books with pretty tables laid for tea in the back parlour. I know it’s a long drive, but if you want value for money you should give it a try. Two coffees and two delicious home-made cakes for £2.40 was the cheapest fare we had experienced for many months of travelling through Scandinavia and the seat by the fire was most welcome.
It was the second Tuesday of the month and the day of the monthly Parish meeting in the Church Hall. The committee turned up for their lunchtime soup and rolls whilst we were there. The Minister was
there too, so I asked him about falling audiences, thinking Scottish churches at least would be holding their own against Coronation Street, mobile phones and computer games.
‘It’s certainly an uphill struggle,’ he told me with a warm smile.
In my day, the Church ran the Youth Club, the local youth football team and most of the social events in the Church Hall, but I suppose that’s all gone now. I guess it will take another major catastrophe, another stock market crash, another world war or another 9/11 to bring us all back to the fold.
Europe’s biggest sheep fair is held in Lairg every August. We chanced to miss that of course, but we did find the ‘Annual Lairg Art Exhibition’ in the Community Hall. There were many lovely paintings and photographs on display by local artists with a wealth of talent. Our favourite painting was already sold, which was just as well; we have nowhere to hang it anyway. There we met a young lady with her husband and young son who had moved into a local croft with 20 acres just two weeks before. Cindy is an artist and art teacher, and her husband planned
to keep a few cattle and get work where he could. They were there sussing out the local talent and looking for opportunities. May all their dreams come true.
The following day we visited a craft show at the Community Hall in Ullapool where I admired some wonderful bird pictures in acrylic ink, painted by an artist approaching retirement who had recently taken up residence on the east coast.
‘My wife writes a bit, and I paint,’ he told me. ‘It’s been our living for the past 30 years.’
They sold their Shropshire house last year and bought a cottage outside of Brora on the east coast where they have friends, putting ‘a pile in the bank’ for their old age. Clearly, with low house prices and despite the inclement weather and spiteful midges, it will not be long before the area becomes the centre of the art world.
No report on Scotland would be complete without at least a brief mention of the weather. We could certainly be accused of bringing weather with us from Faroe, Shetland and Orkney, for the rain persisted for several days, following us all the way to Ullapool where
the winds reached gale force throughout Tuesday night and Wednesday and flood water closed local roads. The atrocious weather also robbed us of the much longed for fish and chip supper planned. It was just too wet and windy to venture out. We battened the hatches and spent the evening looking through some of our photographs on the laptop: France, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Tuscany, Sicily, Pompei, Sorento, Umbria, ….. they all seemed so long ago. How lucky we have been to find this brief window in life to enjoy such experiences.
There can be few sights more enigmatic than a stand of Scots pine on the rocky foreshore of a shimmering lake. Indeed, every Saleroom has a copy of a Victorian oil painting, set in a grand gilded frame, depicting a lonely cowherd tending long-horned highland cattle beneath stately dark pines on the shore of a Scottish loch, with heather clad hillsides climbing to sun-drenched mountaintops. It’s still like that in some very special places, though the colours may have faded a wee bit.
It certainly came close to that on our chosen road from Ullapool down the west coast through Kinlochewe, following the sea across the high
...a picture in oils seen in every saleroom
fells and mercury lochs that are the Highlands at their best. The route was a vast blanket of green and brown moors rising to rocky peaks, with pines and ancient oaks, bracken tinged with autumn brown, golden deer grass leaning in the wind, narrow lanes walled with rhododendrons, and migrating flocks of geese, blown across marshy meadows as green as the day they were first painted. The area was thinly scattered with white-stone crofts and over-subscribed with B & B’s and family hotels on windswept lochs, many for sale, as another poor summer passes and yet more dreams of happiness come to an unhappy end. There can be few places of more outstanding beauty than this. If you have not yet travelled to these parts, be sure to put it on your list.
From the west coast we ventured in the footsteps of Betty Burke across the seas to Skye. These days you don’t have to speed by bonny boat to Skye since they built a bridge some years back. The Toll for the bridge, contentious from its early beginnings, was finally laid to rest on December 23rd last year after Islanders discovered that the cost of the bridge
had been more than recouped in tolls and a legal loophole made further contributions unnecessary. Betty, for those like me who had forgotten, was none other than ‘Bonny Prince Charlie’ (Charles Edward Stuart, the Jacobite), in drag, who escaped from the Hanoverian army under the guise of Flora MacDonald’s Irish maidservant in 1746.
Little is made of The Bonnie Prince association on Skye, though there is a memorial to Flora in the churchyard at the north of the island. Clans have played their part in Skye’s history and there is a fine castle at Dunvegan, the home of the MacLeod family for over 800 years. The MacDonalds also had a castle further south at Armadale, where we saw the wonderful gardens, the ‘Clan Donald Trust Museum’ and what’s left of a more recent castle on the site. Thousands of Mac’ visitors from all over the world come to Skye each year to get a handle on their ancestors. It’s still possible to encounter the occasional gentleman wearing his plus-fours, Harris jacket, tartan tie and Tam-O’Shanter in the supermarket, though kilts seem to have died a death except for traditional festivals. I’m not surprised. The winds here are enough
to make even the toughest Jock’s eyes water.
Gaelic is still spoken in many of the villages. It is actively encouraged and the road signs are all in both languages. The gentleman at our campsite told me that until the age of five he had never spoken a word of English. He was born on the island of Benbecula, between North and South Uist in the Outer Hebrides and when he started school every lesson was in English only. His first recollection of school was learning to say, ‘Please, Miss, may I leave the room?’ before it was too late!
Unlike Shetland and Orkney, little is made of any Pictish or Viking presence-or anything in between on Skye. There are a few remnants of brochs, but they are overgrown and generally uncared for. More recent events are remembered though, particularly the ‘clearances’ of the 18th and 19th Centuries which did so much to change the landscape and culture of Skye. Thousands left their crofts for Canada, Nova Scotia, North Carolina and New York as crofters were squeezed dry, crops failed and sheep took over their land. Ruins of abandoned crofts litter the countryside, some of which were still
in use up to the 1950’s. The population today is less than 9,000, which, on an island some 50 miles long, still leaves many living in remote corners across the landscape. It would be difficult to put a finger on the present economic substance of Skye, other than its obvious dependence on sheep and tourism.
Portree is one of just two ‘villages’ on the Hebredian Island of Skye. The approach from across the water was reminiscent of lovely Tobermory on Mull further south; rows of white cottages reflecting on the loch like a string of pearls in the thin afternoon sunlight. We liked Portree and returned on another rainy day later in the week for a bit of shopping and morning coffee. The other village is Broadford, hardly worth a mention - so I won’t.
There are also two ranges of mountains. The Trotternish divide the peninsular in the north, where we enjoyed a great walk between the showers to a disused diatomite mine at the foot of the moss-green mountain. Diatomite, as you will all know, is a silica rich clay used in face powders and …. fire-proofing? You’ve heard the expression, ‘Blow you Jack. I’m fireproof!’
That’s where it comes from.
The other, and more stunning mountains, are in the south. The Cuillin Hills dominate the skyline on Skye, rising like a row of camels from green meadows and heather moorland to peaks over 3,000ft, hidden from view under leaden clouds. Here it was serious mountain walking with 20 or more Munros, knife-edge ridges, jagged pinnacles and scree-filled gullies. Sadly the winds rose to gale force throughout the day and overnight, putting paid to our plans for a stroll around the easy bits! Janice likened the Cuillins to slag heaps and certainly that could be a justifiable first impression, but, in reality, their greyness was a reflection of the ever-threatening skies that plagued us throughout our stay. Our campsite looked out over the dark hills across the river and campers huddled together in their tents, held down with rocks around the edges and soaked by the thrashing rain and racked by the wind. We’re thinking of trying to contact Noah to see if he could do a conversion job on Smiley. The Island’s name is derived from the Norse word for cloud, skuy, which explains a lot.
Off the main ring around the island, the
..on a good day!
roads are virtually all single-track with passing places…. and sheep. One of the wonders of Smiley driving is the Canute syndrome. Oncoming vehicles see this massive white wardrobe heading towards them and stop in the first passing place they see, to let us by. It’s like parting the sea!
Continuous rain and high winds finally drove us off Skye earlier than previously planned, with deep regret that the weather had robbed us of its true magic, the walks across heather moors, the glory of the mountains and the views over sunlit seas to the outer islands. Perhaps we shall return.
One day, perhaps, we will get to visit the Outer Hebrides, nowadays known as the Western Isles, stretching from Lewis and Harris in the north to the Uists and Barra in the south. Whilst this was never included in our ‘big picture’ it would have made sense to cross that tiny stretch of water from Skye, but rough seas and the ‘inclement’ weather put the thought out of our minds on this trip. I have to admit to having a vested interest in Lewis in particular, as the owner of an Isle of Lewis chess set - sorry,
..following the swallows ever southwards
two Isle of Lewis chess sets, if you include the new one purchased a week or two back on Orkney!
Our departure from Skye followed a stormy night, leaving light rain to mark our road over the bridge. The Isle of Skye surely laughed behind our backs as sunshine welcomed our return to the mainland. It stayed dry just long enough for us to visit the intriguing castle of Eilean Donan, built in 1290 (before my time) to defend the area from the Vikings, later destroyed by King George when he sorted out the Spanish supporters of James Stuart in 1719, and then rebuilt as a home in the early 1900’s. That’s British history for you. Unlike beautiful Lindisfarne in the Farne Islands which has a warm homely feeling, this one is pretty and romantic on the outside, but cold and grey on the inside.
Dark clouds gathered overhead once again as we ventured south, following the weather forecast and trying, with little success, to outrun the rain, on through beautiful Glen Shiel, brushed by the Gulf Stream and lush with ferns and rhododendrons, stands of beech, larch and pine. Great folds of hazy grey mountains soared above
.. beautiful - and crowded as ever
Glen Garry as we climbed the pass to the summit for breathtaking views across the loch below. The sense of space and wilderness was stunning, even on such a wet and overcast day. It’s strange, isn’t it, that many such beautiful and remote places are plagued by something or other? If it’s not too wet, it’s too cold, too hot, too windy, too dry, or plagued with midges, mosquitoes, thugs or bandits. On the plus side, we haven’t been troubled with midges at all this year. That’s a first for Scotland! Our last encounter with mosquitoes was in Finland, more than three months ago.
The tourist busses stop a bit further down the road at Spean Bridge Mill, to disgorge their passengers for a comfort stop and a ten-minute shopping spree. Janice had read about its famous whisky shop with row upon row of whiskies from every corner of Scotland and she was soon smiling happily, probably, nay, undoubtedly, as a result of the many free samples available! She settled for a bottle of her favourite malt, Bunnahabhain, first tasted on Islay many years ago on another of our famous very wet walks, with friends Penny and Roger. After
a few samples the rain becomes less important as the Spirit of Scotland takes over.
Ben Nevis was shrouded in cloud as we arrived in Fort William and, after some discussion (about three seconds), we decided not to climb to the summit, but took the road out to Glen Nevis instead. There we hiked the six miles through the spectacular tree lined Nevis Gorge, following the rushing stream to the high falls. Left behind were the ribbons of green-brown landscapes, the purple heather and winding streams of Skye and the northern Highlands. Here, awesome mountains dominated the view from the valley floor, green with grasses, salix and bracken, bright in the secretive sun and dotted with birch, a million golden dots sparkling in the dappled sunlight as it escaped through sparse breaks in the cloud.
We camped overnight near lovely Inveraray, a gathering of white cottages and village shops on the tree-lined shores of Loch Fyne, bronze kelp swelling to-and-fro in tune with the lapping tide. Inveraray Castle, with its towering stone walls and fairytale corner turrets, has been the seat of the Dukes of Argyl and the Clan Campbell - since the 15th Century. Misty morning rain
- and more forecast, finally forced our hand that morning and reluctantly we set forth on the long journey south, past Loch Lomond to Glasgow, for the 225 mile drive to The Lake District in the hope of finding at least a little sunshine. We were somewhat unprepared for the volume of traffic through Glasgow - our last sight of a motorway was in Oslo, in June, more than three months before!
It can hardly be necessary for me to talk about the Lakes, you will all have been there at some time in your life and fallen in love. The English Lakes have inspired the likes of Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge and Beatrix Potter for good reason. For this is the land of rolling hills, lost in the mist of a summer morning, bright in the warmth of a mid-day sun, sombre under the dark clouds of a late summer afternoon, hidden by the curtain of a rainy autumn evening or stark on the horizon against the chill yellow of a harvest moon. This is the land of glorious trees, the great oaks, the mighty sycamores, the stately beech and the hardy ash; every one a picture in its
own right, a study in light and shade, proudly presented on a green baize, dotted with sheep. This is the land of sparkling water, high in the hills and deep in the valleys, the land of rippling streams, tumbling becks and thundering falls. This is the land of rich green pastures, grey dry-stone walls, white cottages on tiny lanes, booted walkers on high ridges and lakeside tracks, bed and breakfast signs by the roadside and friendly ale houses serving tasty food. And this is the land of dreams; dreams inspired through the ages by names such as Borrowdale, Friars Crag and Langdale Pike, Scafell, Dungeon Ghyll, Buttermere and Sourmilk Gill, Skiddaw, Troutbeck and Hawkshead.
We were fortunate to be able to share a few days around Keswick with our Aussie friends Brian and Kathryn, holidaying in The Lakes in their motorhome. They are experienced hill walkers and whilst they took to the high ground we ambled the shores and valleys, more to our liking and ability. By sheer coincidence they were celebrating their wedding anniversary on the same day as our 300th day on the road since we left for France in September 2004 and we celebrated together in
some style at the Borrowdale Gate Hotel. (We were careful to avoid the subject of cricket. Australians seem to get a bit touchy about such things at the moment for some reason!)
Keswick was still the honey pot I remembered from previous visits, with its tourist crowded streets, tempting outdoor-wear shops and discrete tourist offerings. The diggers were at work finishing off new paving along the length of the main street, making it fully pedestrianised at last, but the town is still far from motorhome friendly with tight car parks and traffic coming and going in all directions. It struck me there that we were on our way home at last; back to regimented society, crowded streets, queues, double yellow lines, car parking charges - and an elderly couple (not us) horrified at getting a parking ticket for unwittingly being ten minutes late returning to their car. A black mark on a lifetime of conforming to an ever-changing society - and a holiday in their twilight years totally spoiled no doubt.
In two or three weeks The Lake District will shed its cloak of green and dress for autumn in a fine outfit of gold and bronze. The
The English Lakes
..doing what we love best - hiking. With Brian and Kathryn from Down Under.
serious walkers will still be here enjoying the spectacle, whatever the weather, in what is undoubtedly the most accessible walking country to be found anywhere in the UK. Walking is the mainstay of Lakeland tourism, supporting local farming, B&B and arts and crafts now that mining is all but gone from the area. Mines once produced coal, iron and lead, and later, valuable graphite or ‘black lead’, a great temptation to local thieves - from whence the term, ‘Black Market’, originated.
This chapter on Scandinavia and the Viking Islands fills just a tiny part of our merry jigsaw, that magnet for the fulfilment of knowledge, experience and wonder which tempts every traveller to peer around the next corner or to cross the brow of the next hill. Norway tempted us back for more - and it rewarded our resolve with sufficient spectacles and experiences for us to sleep and dream forever. It lured us willingly into Finland and Sweden, for wonderful walks, new friends and the sights, smells and sounds of some of Europe’s most scenic National Parks. And it brought us to remote islands where Vikings once ruled, where communities still thrive and peace still reigns. All too
soon we would be back at home. Strangely, I have to admit that I was not looking forward to being home. There is something of the ‘inevitable’ and routine about conventional living that no longer relates to our lives of daily exploration, and every new day offering the fascinating or unexpected. Smiley, our motorhome performed outstandingly on this trip, plodding away over mountain passes, down narrow lanes and bumpy tracks, through torrential rain and dust clouds and many, many, thousands of miles. Smiley has been our home and we’ll doubtless find it difficult to settle to life in a house once more after thirteen months of travel.
Sadly, despite our best endeavours, we have missed a few parts of Europe on this trip: Parts of France we have visited before, Denmark, Holland, Belguim, Germany and some areas, now more accessible, further to the east. Further thought will be given to those after our next big journey, circumnavigating North America. There is much planning to do before we take off again, probably early in the New Year, and we’ll have to think about Smiley’s future. Sadly, Smiley can’t go where we’re going and it doesn’t make sense to abandon a motorhome and our cars for 18 months or more. We’ll probably want to buy another on the other side of the pond, for the next chapter of ‘The ramblings of the Grey Haired Nomads.’
Until we meet again - in North America, January 2006, North America by Motorhome
David and Janice
The Grey Haired Nomads
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