It seems somehow appropriate to use this song title from Scottish-born Annie Lennox, given that we awoke to whipping rain and howling winds.
We had survived the night, and at no point did I awake to hear Mary shouting “Auntie Em, Auntie Em”, although it was almost windy enough to lift the Ben Loyal Hotel off the ground. Okay maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but it was really windy!
The weather forecast called for high winds today (Thursday September 20th) with gusts in excess of 75 mph and heavy rain throughout the day. We saw on the morning news that Storm Ali had knocked out power in Ireland overnight, and that a woman had been killed when her mobile home got blown off a cliff in County Galway. Yikes.
Over breakfast we talked about approaching the day with no fixed plan, and that we’d move forward with caution.
We were on our way shortly after 9 AM and thanks to some confusion on the part of the navigator (me), we started off in the wrong direction – but only for about 2 kms. You can see from the picture below that visibility was poor. What you can’t see is just how hard it was raining.
This was going to be an interesting day for us as we didn’t have any castles, church ruins or museums on our radar. Today was supposed to be about the landscape and the scenery but given the weather forecast, we really didn’t how much we’d get to see.
After Mary had negotiated a three-point turn on the road seen above, and yes that is the main road, we were now headed in the right direction – Northwest toward the town of Durness.
To give you a sense of the kind of day we experienced, here is the first of many rainbows that we were blessed with, and as you’ll see later, some of them were pretty spectacular.
It was on this stretch of highway ( above and below) where the rainbow belied just how bad the weather was outside. I honestly don’t know how Mary kept the car on the road. In fact I don’t know how the car didn’t become airborne.
At times, we were driving directly into 75 mph winds which prompted Mary to remark “it feels like the wind is trying to lift the front of the car right off the ground”. At other times, we were being slammed sideways, and as you can see there was nothing on either side of the road to offer protection against the wind.
In the next picture (below), you can see sheets of rain coming down as we entered one of the many glens between Tongue and Durness on the North Coast 500 (route A838 in this part of the country). At least at this point, we were still driving on a two-lane highway.
Shortly after the above picture was taken, highway A838 became a single-track road, and for much of the next 150 miles, that is what Mary drove on, starting with the stretch of road in the next shot. And bear in mind, this is the main highway through the Highlands and often the only road.
The next two pictures are without a doubt favorites of ours, and they feature another rainbow. Check out the juxtaposition of the stunning colours against the furious sky behind it, and note again, the single-track road with a “passing place”.
As we moved closer to Durness on the northwest coast of Scotland, we crossed the top of Loch Hope and skirted around the edge of Loch Eriboll which enters into the Atlantic Ocean. You can see from the google map to the left, the 29 mile drive from Tongue to Durness should take an hour (average speed of 30 miles an hour due to the single-track roads and the constant stopping and starting). Because of the high winds, and a few brief stops to try and take pictures, this portion of the drive took closer to 90 minutes this morning. Check out the whitecaps on Loch Hope in the picture below, and this was taken during a brief respite from the rain.
Coming into this road trip, we were excited about the prospect of driving through the highlands as we had a romantic notion of what it would look like. It has not disappointed so far, and in spite of the weather (today and in the past few days) we are seeing natural beauty unlike anything we’ve seen before. Most of today’s blog is going to focus on that beauty and I’m going to let a lot of it speak for itself. These next few photos (below) are taken on the road between Tongue and Durness.
As we approached Durness, Mother Nature served up another spectacular rainbow to us, and this one seems to disappear right into the water.
Durness is a very remote village in the northwest highlands. It has a population of about 350 and its economy revolves around an open-air craft village established by a group of artists who display local pottery work, enamal work, wood carvings and paintings. There is also a white sandy beach which is said to be a nice resting spot in good weather. As you can imagine, in this weather, there was nothing restful about the beach and as far as the craft village was concerned, it was locked up tighter than a CIBC bank vault.
The picture below is taken just before we entered the town, and you can see how rough the seas were by the waves on the water (that’s the Atlantic Ocean).
There is one local tourist attraction in Durness – Smoo Cove, the largest sea cave in Great Britain. It is only accessible via a steep flight of stairs and in calm weather, you can take a boat trip into the cave itself. We weren’t going anywhere near it today, and as we entered the town itself, the skies just opened up again.
At Durness we turned south, since with the exception of a day trip out to Cape Wrath (seems an appropriate name for this weather) there is nothing west of Durness except rocks and sea.
As we began to make our way down the western side of Scotland, we were “editing on the fly” as far as a game plan was concerned. We had originally hoped to pay a visit to Handa Island (accessed by boat from the town of Scourie), a “walk-on” island and one of the most important bird sanctuaries in Europe. Boat access is via a 12-person inflatable dinghy and we didn’t even bother checking to see if it was operating. We would have been soaked to the skin, and it would not have been a pleasant experience.
There are supposedly a couple of nice beaches between Durness and Ullapool, 65 miles to the south and our mid-day destination. If you are ever in this part of the Highlands, Sandwood Bay and Oldshoremore Bay are said to be beautiful spots with soft white sand and spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean.
Despite the weather, we continued to be treated to some great scenery. For example this is Loch Laxford (below), and in spite of the rain on the car window, we still loved the view.
About half-way to Ullapool (35 miles from Durness), we began to see Quinag Mountain, which meant we were getting close to the Kylesku Passage – acclaimed to be one of the most spectacular spots in the western highlands. We pulled off into a coastal campground to take this picture of Quinag, and the noise from the wind was deafening. Off to the right of the campers were tents, and I honestly have no idea how they were still anchored to the ground. The wind bouncing of them sounded like someone jumping on a trampoline while wearing heavy boots. And who camps out in this weather anyway????
The view of the Atlantic in the picture below is what the campers could see.
A few miles further along the coast we came to the top of the hill which overlooks the Kylesku Passage. It runs between Loch Glencoul and Gleann Dubh. I got out of the car to take the pictures below, and you can’t really tell how hard it was raining from any of them. I might as well have been taking a shower with my clothes on, as the water was running off the end of my nose.
Standing there I could definitely get a sense of how magnificent the view might be on a sunny day, and to prove it to myself, I went online and found this helicopter shot (below) that really illustrates why people rave about it. My vantage point was from the left about half way up the hill alongside the road that leads to the bridge.
A further 8 miles along the A894, we came upon Loch Assynt. It is not a particularly large loch (only 6 miles long), but it is known for both excellent fishing and as the home of Ardvreck Castle.
Ardvreck Castle was once held by both the MacLeods and the Mackenzies and it plays host to yet another of Scotland’s famous ghost stories. It sits on a promontory (a jut of land out into a large body of water) and is accessible by foot at certain times of the year. We didn’t venture out because of the rain and the resultant muddy path, but you can see that didn’t stop one hardy adventurer in the picture below.
Legend tells of the Macleod’s lost daughter, Eimhir and her continued presence at Loch Assynt. Instead of jumping to her death, locals “believe” that she plunged into the depths of the Loch, and hiding from the devil to whom she was promised, made a new home beneath the water’s surface , becoming the elusive “Mermaid of Assynt”. Her tears are supposed to be responsible for any change in the water level, and others claim to have seen her weeping on the rocks, her body transformed into a half woman, half sea creature.
The nearby ruins of Calda House are also supposed to be haunted.
The legend says that the Mackenzie family organized a family gathering there one Saturday and that the celebrations continued past midnight into the Sabbath day. At some point a fire broke out, possibly caused by a lightning strike, and all the inhabitants perished as the house burned to the ground. The causes of the fire are uncertain, but inhabitants of the Assynt area state that it was “a manifestation of divine wrath as the family had been merry-making on the Lord’s Sabbath day“. Indeed, stories are told that there was a survivor of the fire, a piper who was spared the flames because he refused to play the pipes past the midnight hour.
Roughly 40-minutes further south, we turned onto the single-track road that lines the waterfront at Ullapool.
Ullapool was planned and built as a fishing station in 1788, but the major activity nowadays stems from the presence of a ferry terminal. Twice a day, ferries leave for the Isle of Lewis & Harris (the home of Harris Tweed), and Stornaway. As much as we would have loved to visit those islands, the departure times just didn’t work for us. As a “makegood”, I promised Mary that we would find her a Harris Tweed jacket in a memorable place before the end of our Scottish adventure.
While the winds were still battering the shoreline, the rain had eased off as we pulled into Ullapool. You can see however by the colour of the sky in the pictures below, the next wave was on its way.
While there, we stopped for lunch at “Tea By The Sea”, a tea room run by two friends who had a dream of creating a relaxing “drop-in” for locals and tourists alike. Their business card said “we hope to put the kettle on for you soon”, and so we let them!
It was 2:15 by the time we were on the road again and after some deliberation, we decided to head toward Inverewe Gardens – a major tourist attraction but more than a little out of our way.
The journey to Inverewe consisted of a 40 mile drive straight into heavy gusting winds, with much of it on single-track roads. However, the rain held off for the entire 75-minute drive and thanks to a gift of some blue sky, we saw some of our best scenery of the day.
Nearing Inverewe, we stopped at a scenic viewpoint that overlooked Loch Ewe. Facing the 75 mph gusts that were continuing to blow unabated, I had all I could do to hold my camera steady. I think the pictures below were worth it though, as the colour contrast between land, water, mountain and sky was absolutely stunning. Mary stayed close to the car and told me that as I fought my way back toward her, the wind was battering my face to the point where I looked like a skydiver in free-fall.
While neither one of us are particularly “into” flowers in a big way (four green thumbs between us), if you are a lover of flowers and plants, and you find yourself in this area of Scotland, Inverewe Gardens is a “must-see”. It is a world-renowned botanical garden noted for the breadth of its collection.
Created in 1862, it has over 2500 exotic plants and flowers and is maintained for the Scottish National Trust by 10 full-time gardeners. The facility also features red deer, red squirrels, otters, seals and Golden Eagles. The grounds also contain massive California Redwoods. These notes are from the back of the post-card I purchased (pictured below) since we did not venture inside. As we sat in the parking lot contemplating a visit, the skies opened up again, making the decision for us.
While sitting there, we were able to book one of the last available rooms on the Isle of Skye which is where we had hoped to get to by the end of today. (Travelers tip – if you are planning a visit to Skye and are “winging it” like we have been, book your room on or near Skye a good 24-48 hours in advance as accommodations are scarce, and it is a very popular destination. Also, be aware that rooms are quite a bit more expensive on Skye than on the mainland).
Moving on from Inverewe we were now faced with another two+ hours of driving to get to our B&B on the Isle of Skye. As we set out on the final leg of today’s adventure, this is what the roads and the sky looked like.
We were entering an area of the Highlands called Beinn Eighe, a complex set of mountains in the Torridon area of Wester Ross. It’s highest peak is just over 3,000 feat and in the summer it is a popular spot for both hill-walkers and climbers. The entire area was sculpted by retreating glaciers during successive ice ages and these mountains are some of the oldest on earth (Torridonian Rock is over 600 million years old).
The images below pretty much speak for themselves as to the fascinating and diverse beauty of this part of the highlands.
As we got closer to Kyle of Lochalsh, the last town on the mainland before the Skye bridge, we came upon the northern end of Loch Carron. What makes this an interesting Loch is that it is a sea-water Loch at its northern end (connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the River Carron), and a fresh-water lake at the other end.
Much to our relief, the rain had finally stopped, and the wind had also lost of some of its intensity. I loved this view of our approach to Loch Carron, but there was no place for Mary to pull over, hence the shadowy frame in the picture below from the car’s rear-view mirror and front dashboard. I considered cropping it, but it would have cost me too much of the picture, so you’ll have to live with it….
Just around the bend from where this picture was taken, we met up with some road work that was underway. They are undertaking some repair work on a cliff-side tunnel and weather-shed that protects both the road and the adjacent train tracks from rock-slides.
What made this little interruption so interesting was what happened after we followed the convoy vehicle through the tunnel.
Yup, we are driving along the train tracks. How freaky is that? And as we found out about 30 minutes after these pictures were taken, this is a major rail line for ScotRail.
Due to the weather and the less-than-straight line approach we took to today’s travels, we broke one of our travel rules and found ourselves still out on the road at 6 in the evening. Hungry and suffering from “numb-bum”, we decided to stop for dinner at the Carron Restaurant about 30 minutes from our B&B, and right on the loch itself. It was while we were deciding on what to eat that a ScotRail train went roaring past on its way toward the construction zone we’d passed through earlier.
The food was fantastic, and it was nice to get off the road for a bit, even though we still had a few more miles to go.
With bellies full, and daylight dwindling, we hit the road one last time, and shortly before 7:30 PM, we pulled into the parking lot of our B&B, which was located just across the Skye Bridge from the mainland.
Prior to the Skye bridge’s completion in 1995, the Isle of Skye (like all the other islands around Scotland) was only accessible via a ferry or small boat service. The opening of the bridge connected the Isle to the mainland at the town of Kyle of Lochalsh. This is considered the northern access point, but in fact once across the bridge, one finds themselves pretty much in the middle of Skye (roughly 50 miles long from top to bottom). If you are accessing Skye from the south, you must still take a 30-minute ferry ride from the town of Mallaig over to the island.
Our accommodation for the night was at Blairdu House, and our room was really great, with a pretty nice view too.
Today was without a doubt our most tiring day as we traveled close to 250 miles in some of the worst driving conditions we’ve experienced in our 40 years together. With only a few short leg stretches and two food breaks built in for good measure, we were on the road for more than 10 hours.
Trust me when I say that at least two-thirds of the driving was on twisting single-track roads that meant for frequent stops and starts and endless gear-shifting. And these so-called “major” roads had fences and cattle-grids running across the middle of them!!! It was bad enough coming upon them in the pouring rain. I can’t imagine driving this road in the dark, or in the dark in bad weather as there are absolutely no street lights.
As tired as we were at the end of today, we reveled in having seen all that is magnificent about the Scottish Highlands, and it was totally worth the effort.
I will finish off today’s log with a picture of my hero behind the wheel. This amazing lady has now driven over 2000 miles, on the wrong side of the road, in a standard, which of course means shifting gears with her left hand instead of her right. That’s 23 days spent on roads that frankly don’t deserve that designation, and in some of the nastiest driving conditions I’ve seen.
I know that she will sleep well tonight.