CASTLE RUINS, CRAGGY PEAKS, COASTLINES & CAVES OF THE SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS
Our road tour of the Scottish highlands continued today, taking us along curvy roads, past Medieval castle ruins, alongside beautiful coastlines, and under the shadow of craggy peaks. Along the way we also got to explore Smoo Cave, a large cavern once used as a hiding place by outlaws. We covered another 250km as we headed south along the western coast, and made it all the way from Thurso to Ullapool, where we’re staying tonight. Our day was ridiculously scenic and we have most definitely fallen for the Scottish Highlands. With views like this, who can blame us…
We were actually a bit slow to get started this morning as we didn’t get to sleep until 2:00am last night (that’s at least 3-4 hours past my bedtime). There was a wedding* on in the bar/restaurant downstairs last night and unfortunately it turns out our room is RIGHT ABOVE the function room where the festivities were being held. They had a live band playing and, whilst the band was good, they were also very LOUD. It was so loud, in fact, that the light fixtures in our room were vibrating. Ain’t nobody gonna sleep with that kind of party raging just a few feet below, so we resigned ourselves to enjoying the tunes and staying awake until it quietened down. As a consequence we were up late and out the door even later (for us anyway – we’re normally early morning people and it feels like the day’s half over if you don’t get out until 10:00am).
*Men’s Scottish wedding regalia is very cool, by the way. We saw guys in the wedding party and quite a few male guests downstairs in their kilts, all proudly displaying their clan tartan colours.
Not far out of Thurso we passed a large complex of buildings with a large dome in the centre. It was all fenced in and heavily guarded, which was enough to pique our interest. We looked it up and turns out that was Dounreay, a nuclear testing and research facility. Makes sense to put something like that waaaaay up north, far from anything (and anyone).
Soon after we found ourselves in the tiny seaside village of Bettyhill, best known for its spectacular beach. We stopped to stroll along the beach, but were soon convinced by the howling winds that it wasn’t really beach weather today, despite the occasional patch of blue sky.
Also spectacular were the sheltered beaches of the Kyle* of Tongue. Best of all, as we drove along the edges of this sea inlet we saw some seals swimming in the shallow waters. There’s so much wildlife to see in Scotland, it’s great!
*In Scottish a “kyle” is a sea inlet, wider than a firth but narrower than a bay. Between Kyles, firths, munros, grahams, glens, and connors, these Scottish geographical nouns are bloody confusing sometimes!
We stopped along the shore of the Kyle of Tongue to hike up to the ruins of Castle Varrich. The castle sits on a high point of rock, overlooking both the Kyle of Tongue and the village of Tongue and was once the seat of the chief of the Clan Mackay who ruled this region. The castle was built in the 14th century, on top of an even older Norse* fort. Today not much is left of the ancient fortress, but the ruins made for some great photos.
*This part of Scotland played host to many Viking marauders and, later, settlers. Their imprint is still apparent in the names of places and the people themselves, many of whom definitely have a Scandinavian look about them.
Further on we pulled in to explore Smoo Cave, a 40m wide and 15m high cavern down by the seashore that locals used to say was the home of the Devil. The cave’s dire reputation may have come from its days as an outlaw’s hideout, or from the 17th century when local henchman Domhnull MacMhurchaidh* used the cave to dispose of bodies. Not that there’s anything sinister about the caves today – it was very cool!
*Domhnull MacMhurchaidh worked for the chiefs of Clan MacKay as a hired killer. He is said to have murdered at least 18 people and disposed of the bodies by dumping them into the waterfall that runs down into the caves at Smoo.
The large first chamber of the cave has been formed by the action of the sea, whereas the inner chambers are formed from rainwater dissolving the soft limestone. Partway through the cave the waters of River Allt Smoo also drop in as a 20m high waterfall. We got deafened and soaked standing in the waterfall chamber; the sheer volume of water falling into the cave was incredible.
Not far from Smoo Cave lies the township of Durness. Home to 400 people, this is the largest village for miles and made a good stop for a coffee break. Especially when we found the “Cocoa Mountain Cafe and Chocolaterie”! Who would have thought that such good coffee and delectable artisan chocolates could be found in the great wilderness of Scotland’s northern highlands?! We certainly didn’t expect it, but man did we appreciate it!
Refuelled and recharged after our intake of macchiato coffees and chocolate truffles we continued on to Balnakeil to see the ruins of Balnakeil Church and the beautiful Balnakeil Bay.
Balnakeil church was built in 1617 and still houses the remains of Domhnull MacMhurchaidh (of Smoo Cave infamy). Seems that in his dotage MacMhurchaidh realised his evil ways were putting his immortal soul in danger; when the church at Balnakeil was being built, MacMhurchaidh paid a princely sum to be buried in a specially constructed vault within the church. The tomb is still there and MacMhurchaidh’s heraldic symbols (a huntsman killing a stag, a sailing ship, a fish, and a skull and crossbones) still visible.
From Durness the landscape began to change; flat expanses of peat bog gave way to mountains and valleys. Through the mountains we were often driving on narrow, single lane roads, punctuated with the occasional passing spaces where you could pull over to let on-coming traffic through. Unsurprisingly the scenery was magnificent and we were constantly stopping to take photos, which is why a 250km drive took us 8 hours!
There weren’t any villages for miles through that bit of the journey, so when we finally reached Rhiconich, it seemed pretty exciting! Most exciting of all were the public toilets in Rhiconich – much better than trying to find a spot to pee on the side of the road (especially when there isn’t a tree or “modesty bush” to be seen for miles). It’s actually been one of the surprises of the drive so far – all small villages we’ve passed through along the way have had free public loos available, and when we’ve had to use the facilities they’ve always been well stocked and clean. A very different experience to using the loos in rural China, that’s for sure!
Near the village of Kylesku we crossed the epic Kylesku Bridge. Opened by the Queen herself in 1984 this 276m long bridge replaced a ferry service that used to run across the bay. The bridge has apparently won several design and construction awards. We’re not experts but it did seem like a pretty cool bridge.
Whilst we were standing around admiring the bridge the coolest thing happened: a deer turned up! He was just standing around eating the grass near the parking space we had pulled into. We stood very still and kept as quiet as we could so as not to startle him and got to watch him for ages until another car pulled in and scared him off. So cool!
Our final sightseeing stop for the day were the ruins of Ardvreck Castle. Standing on a rocky promontory, jutting out into Loch Assynt, the castle was built around 1590 by Clan MacLeod who owned Assynt and the surrounding area. It must have been a cold, lonely outpost all those hundreds of years ago. Even today, with the wind whipping around us and the clouds looming above, it wasn’t the most welcoming of places to stop and explore. It doesn’t bear thinking about how inhospitable it much have been in these cold, windy parts of Scotland all those centuries ago.
We arrived in Ullapool not long ago, after another long day on the road. Ullapool is by far the largest settlement in the north-west of Scotland and our home base for tonight. It’s primarily a fishing port, with tourism being a secondary concern. Being so remote choices for accommodation are somewhat limited and, consequently, we’re staying in a truly craptacular* hotel tonight. Ahhh well, at least the town itself is cute, and the surrounding mountains pretty impressive.
*Crap + spectacular = craptacular. Describes something that is spectacularly crap.
We’re off to see a bit more of Ullapool (should take all of 3 minutes), and then find some dinner (most likely seafood, given where we are!). So goodbye for now blog fans and catch you tomorrow when we continue our journey and head south back towards more civilised lands!
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