ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 105


MAGNIFICENCE & MYSTERY IN EDINBURGH

Having explored the main centre of Edinburgh yesterday we went a little further afield today, out to Rosslyn and Holyrood, to see a few more of the sights this city is famous for. Top of the list was Rosslyn Chapel, one of Scotland’s most popular religious sites and one of the most intriguing churches we’ve seen to date.

 

rosslyn chapel 1

 

Rosslyn Chapel is a small church, situated in the village of Rosslyn just outside Edinburgh’s city limits, was made famous by the book “The Da Vinci Code” (hence its popularity amongst the visiting hordes). Long before Dan Brown used this as his inspirations, however, mystery surrounded the chapel and its intriguing array of carvings. It was the church’s archaic association with the Knight’s Templar, not the more recent pop culture reference, that captured our interest and had us setting off early this morning* on a bus bound for the village of Rosslyn.

*The chapel’s popularity has sky-rocketed since “the Da Vinci Code” was published and subsequently made into a movie. We were waned that, as a consequence, the crowds can get rather large. Given how small the church is we didn’t really want to be squashed in there with 1,000 other people and so intentionally got out there early, to be there when it opened. Seemed this was a good tactic as there weren’t many other visitors there with us and we got to enjoy the unique ambience of the place unhindered.

 

 

Rosslyn Chapel was founded in 1446 by William St Clair and remains privately owned by the family. It’s set in the beautiful countryside just outside Edinburgh and is quite an attractive structure from the outside. The rose, yellow, and grey stone the chapel is made of makes for interesting shades and tones, and the intricate carvings around the windows and adorning each corner of the building were fascinating.

 

 

 

 

But stepping inside the chapel the wonder of Rosslyn’s Chapel really came to light. Every available surface was covered in carvings, rich in symbolism. There are more than 100 carvings of “Green Men*” in and around the chapel. Other carvings represent plants, including depictions of wheat, strawberries and lilies. There’s even some carvings in the chapel that purportedly represent ears of corn, a plant which was unknown in Europe at the time of the chapel’s construction. One of the enduring theories about these carvings is that they support the idea that Henry St Clair, William’s father, traveled to the Americas well before Columbus along with other Knights Templar.

*”Green Men” are recognised pagan symbols of growth, lushness, and fertility. Depicted with greenery all around them, they’re often viewed as a male counterpart to Mother Nature or female fertility spirits/gods.

 

The mysteries associated with Rosslyn Chapel don’t end there, however. Beneath the ornately carved chapel lies a stone crypt within which, according to legend, the treasures of the Knights Templar are buried*. Depending on whom you ask, that treasure is the Holy Grail, sacred scrolls from the time of Christ, a fragment of the cross on which he died, or even his embalmed head, secreted out of the Holy Land as the Templars fled prosecution 700 years ago.

*It was this myth that Dan Brown used as the basis for his book.

 

Allusions to Freemasonry and secret societies are also supposedly found in amongst the chapel’s carvings. Theories abound about the hidden meanings of the intricate stonework, especially since William Sinclair, the chapel’s original sponsor, was supposedly the Grand Master of the Scottish stonemasons, and subsequently several other members of the Sinclair family have held this position.

Note: You’re not allowed to take photos inside Rosslyn Chapel but the following photos from their official website (www.rosslynchapel.com) should help give you an idea of the amazing interior of the church.

 

rosslyn chapel 2

 

rosslyn chapel 3

 

rosslyn chapel 3

 

rosslyn chapel 4

 

rosslyn chapel 5

 

The chapel’s alters were destroyed in 1592 during the Scottish Reformation, and the chapel was abandoned, gradually falling into decay. It was only restored in the 19th century after Queen Victoria visited and expressed a desire to the Sinclair’s that it should be preserved. The restoration works carried out have been done beautifully, making Rosslyn Chapel a wonderful place to visit (even if you’re not a “Da Vinci Code” fan or a conspiracy theorist).

 

 

Having sated our thirst for religious (and pagan) iconography we hopped on the bus back to Edinburgh and headed down The Royal Mile towards Holyrood Palace and its surrounds.

 

 

 

Holyrood Palace is the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. It’s located at the eastern end of The Royal Mile in Edinburgh and was built in the 1670s in the Baroque style.

 

 

One week of the year, in late summer, the palace becomes the residence of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, and the setting for a range of official engagements and ceremonies. As you would expect from a palace that is actually still functioning as a palace (even if only for one week of the year), it was a pretty grand kind of place.

 

 

When the Queen’s not in town parts of the palace are open to the public, and we joined the crowds keen to have a nosey through the Royal Apartments and the formal reception rooms. As is commonplace in these kinds of castles we couldn’t take any photos inside the palace, but trust us, Liz and Phil live in style when they’re up here every August.

 

 

Beside the palace are the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. The abbey was founded in 1128 by King David I of Scotland. Legend has it that in 1127, while King David was hunting in the forests to the east of Edinburgh, he was thrown from his horse after it had been startled by a stag. He was saved from being gored by the charging animal when it was startled by the miraculous appearance of a holy cross* descending from the skies. As an act of thanksgiving, the king founded Holyrood Abbey on the site of the miracle.

*”Rood” is an old word for the cross which Jesus Christ was crucified upon; the name “Holyrood” therefore effectively means “holy cross”.

 

 

 

 

During the 15th century the abbey guesthouse was developed into a royal residence and, after the Scottish Reformation, the Palace of Holyrood was expanded further. When the Scottish and English crowns were united in 1703, however, the palace was no longer occupied full-time and the abbey church was left to go to ruin.

 

 

We took a stroll through the 10 acre gardens surrounding Holyrood Palace and then continued on into Holyrood Park. Once the hunting grounds of the royal family, Holyrood Park is now a public green space that today was bustling with joggers, people walking their dogs, and families out for the day.

 

 

Central to Holyrood Park is Arthur’s Seat*. This 250m high hill rises up to the east of Edinburgh’s city centre and is described as “an easy climb for keen hillwalkers”. It’s been a while since we did any hiking and the afternoon was sunny, so we set off for our hill walk.

*We found out later that the hill’s name comes from its association with Arthurian legends; Arthur’s Seat is supposedly one of the possible locations for Camelot

 

 

 

 

The views along the way and from the top were great and a suitable reward for our efforts. We could see all the way to the castle and across to the port arfea of Leigh, where a cruise ship was just pulling out of the dock.

 

 

 

 

Walking down Arthur’s Seat and back to our hotel we realised that today was actually our last day in Scotland! Tomorrow we cross the border and re-enter England, and whilst we’re keen to see more of England, we’re going to miss the beauty and grandeur of Scotland! We’ve ended up enjoying Scotland way more than we thought we would and have definitely put this country on the “Must Return To” list.

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 104


CHARMED BY EDINBURGH

Edinburgh is charming! The Old Town has a wonderful Medieval feel to it, with its cobbled streets, Gothic architecture, and wynds (i.e. tiny, narrow alleys). And the New Town is brimming with beautiful 18th century stone buildings, parks, and wide boulevards that lend it a grand, dignified air. It’s no wonder both parts of the city have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. By making Edinburgh our last stop in Scotland we really feel like we’ve saved the best ‘til last!

 

 

After weeks up in the Highlands where it was rare to see more than a handful of people in a day, we were worried about how crowded and chaotic Edinburgh would feel, but it’s great. For a big city (population: 1.3 million), Edinburgh still has a great “small town” feel to it that we felt instantly comfortable with. The city also has an air of grandeur about it that’s hard to ignore – hardly surprising given this has been the capital of Scotland since the 15th century. Edinburgh is also home to the Scottish Parliament; the seat of the monarchy in Scotland; home to Scotland’s oldest university; and the largest financial centre in the UK after London. This a city with some serious credentials!

 

 

Compared to many other British cities Edinburgh never underwent any large scale industrialised development*; instead the economy is now based mainly on financial services, scientific research, higher education, and tourism. The city was also purposefully planned to make the most of the hilly terrain and keep the city as pleasantly liveable as possible. We had a great day exploring some of the sights around the New Town and the Old Town, soaking in Edinburgh’s vibe.

*The lack of industrialisation goes some way to explain why the cityscape is so well preserved and why Edinburgh has such a different “feel” to it, compared to Glasgow.

 

 

Central to Edinburgh’s cityscape is The Royal Mile, a wide boulevard flanked by 3 and 4 storey buildings dating from the 14th to 17th centuries that starts at Holyrood Palace and ends at the gates of Edinburgh Castle. The Royal Mile is in many ways the heart of the city; this is where Edinburgh was born and is still a focal point for the city. We started our self-guided walking tour of the city here, stopping to take photos and admire the grand old buildings along the way.

 

 

 

 

One of the key attractions along The Royal Mile is St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh’s central church. Built in the 14th century the cathedral is Gothic in design and wonderfully gloomy. The 19th century stained glass windows add a splash of colour to the atmosphere, helping make it a little less sombre.

 

 

 

 

 

We turned off The Royal Mile about half way down to climb up Calton Hill, one of the 7 hills Edinburgh’s built on. The hill was once home to Edinburgh’s prison but is now adorned with a number of monuments dedicated to various beloved sons of the city. The main reason we went up there was to enjoy the views and get a bird’s-eye view of the town. We were not disappointed!

 

 

 

 

Coming down from Calton Hill we ended up on Princes Street, Edinburgh’s premier shopping street and the dividing line between the Medieval Old Town and the Neo-classical New Town. The beautifully preserved Georgian buildings, designer boutiques, and high-end restaurants were a testament to the street’s gentrified appeal.

 

 

 

 

The decision to construct New Town was undertaken in the 18th century after overcrowding inside the Old Town city walls reached breaking point. To prevent an exodus of wealthy citizens from the city an expansion was planned. As the successive stages of the New Town were developed, the rich moved northwards from cramped tenements in narrow closes into grand Georgian homes on wide roads, overlooking green parklands. However, the poor remained in the Old Town down below, creating a geographical divide based on class and wealth that still exists today, to some extent.

 

 

By this stage the temperamental Scottish weather had decided it was time for some rain so we made our way to the Scottish National Museum where we happily spent the afternoon. Across 6 floors the museum covered the geological, political, social, and economic history of Scotland from the ice age until now. There were heaps of great artefacts on display, lots of information to try and absorb, and the views from the rooftop terrace gave us yet another great view over the city.

 

 

 

Just across the road from the museum we came across the memorial statue of Greyfriars Bobby, a Skye Terrier who supposedly spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner until he died himself on the 14th of January 1872. The puppy and his sorely missed owner are buried at the Greyfriars Graveyard next door. Seeing the statue reminded us of the statue of Hachiko* we saw in Tokyo – seems stories of canine loyalty are universally loved!

*Hachiko was an Akita owned by a Japanese university professor. Each day the dog would wait for the professor to return from work outside Shibuya station in Tokyo. One day, in May 1925, the professor did not return (he died unexpectedly). Each day for the next 10 years, Hachiko returned to the station at the same time each afternoon, awaiting his owner’s return.

 

 

 

 

We’re now back in our little apartment, watching yet more rain fall outside and feeling content and relaxed after a great day’s explorations around Edinburgh. This really is a wonderful city and one we’d happily return to.

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 103


VIEWS OVER EDINBURGH FROM CASTLE HILL

Edinburgh Castle towers over the city below, providing spectacular views over the town below and surrounding landscape. There has been a fortress of some kind on Castle Hill since the Iron Age, and as Edinburgh and the Kingdom of Scotland grew in wealth, so did its castle. Today it’s Scotland’s most visited tourist attraction, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the most iconic symbols of Scotland. It’s also supposedly haunted…. With credentials like that, we decided the castle had to be our very first stop here in Edinburgh!

 

 

We caught the early morning train out of Inverness, keen to get to Edinburgh with a full afternoon to spare. Or at least I was keen, Shane less so (he’s become accustomed to this “being on holiday long term” business and dragging him out of bed at 7:00am this morning did NOT make me popular).

 

 

The train ride down from Inverness past through the fertile agricultural plains of central Scotland, a region with lots to see but one we chose to by-pass this time ‘round in favour of having more time in the wilds of the northern Highlands. All we got to see of central Scotland were flashes of golden wheat fields, and stretches of green meadows full of sheep and cows. It’s a shame we couldn’t fit it ALL in, but it’s good to have something to come back for, right?!

 

 

 

 

We arrived in Edinburgh around lunchtime and found our digs for the next few nights easily enough. The place we’re staying in is close to the city and seemed like great value when we booked it: we get a studio apartment, complete with kitchenette, for just £60 (about $120AUD*) per night. Turns out it’s a set of university dorms that are rented out to tourists when the students are off for the summer! The apartment is pretty basic, but clean and comfortable, which is all we need. It’s also nice to be able to cook a few meals for ourselves for a change.

*That’s CHEAP for a hotel in Edinburgh in the summer! This place is popular and you pay a premium for being within walking distance of the Old Town, castle, and other major sights.

 

 

Once we’d checked in, dropped our bags off and refuelled (i.e. had lunch), we headed straight out to Edinburgh’s Old Town and up the steep concourse to Castle Hill. The rest of our afternoon was spent exploring the immense castle on the rock. It was awesome!

 

 

Edinburgh Castle sits on top of Castle Hill, an extinct volcano flanked to the north, south and west by sheer cliffs rising 100m up; the only way to access the hilltop is to climb up the steep road on the eastern side. This was of huge strategic and defensive benefit in times gone past, which is why there has been a fortress on Castle Hill for 2,000 years.

 

 

The oldest parts of the existing castle date back to the 12th century, though most of the buildings date from the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s certainly not the prettiest of the castles we’ve seen in Scotland, but Edinburgh Castle certainly is impressive.

 

 

Given its importance it’s unsurprising to learn that the castle was the focal point of many conflicts, from the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century to the Jacobite Rising of the 1700s. We learnt today that Edinburgh Castle was besieged at least 26 times in its 1,100 year history.

 

 

The castle was a royal residence until the union of the Scottish and English kingdoms in the 17th century, at which point it was used primarily as military barracks. The castle is still used by the British military today and also houses the Scottish War Memorial, which we got to visit this afternoon.

 

 

We also stopped in to visit St Margaret’s Chapel, the oldest building in Edinburgh Castle which dates from the early 12th century. The chapel is named after Margaret, a princess from Wessex who fled to Scotland after the Norman conquest of what is now northern England and was canonised in 1050 due to her good works. It’s a tiny little Romanesque chapel with beautiful stained glass windows depicting various early Christian Scottish saints. There’s also a window showing William Wallace in full battle armour, fighting the English during the Scottish War of Independence.

 

 

 

The Great Hall was awesome, with its display or armour and weaponry, and the impressive wooden roof which was built in 1511 using no nails or screws.

 

 

 

 

We also got to see the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny (no photos allowed). The Stone of Destiny has been part of the coronation ceremonies of most monarchs of Great Britain. After centuries of residing in England, it was returned in 1996 to Scotland and has been in the castle ever since. Next door to where the Crown Jewels are kept we got to see some of the restored Royal Apartments which were somewhat austere and uninspiring, but nice enough.

 

 

One of our final stops at Edinburgh Castle were The Vaults, where prisoners-of-war were held, and the dungeons. It was here we learnt a little about the castle’s supernatural reputation. Turns out Edinburgh Castle is one of the most haunted spots in Scotland! Over the years visitors to the castle have reported hearing a phantom piper*, seeing a headless drummer boy, and encountering the spirits of French prisoners kept in The Vaults during the Seven Years War. Spooky stuff! No ghosts were on duty today, however, and we made it out of Edinburgh castle unmolested by other-worldly spirits.

*Here’s a juicy tale to be shared over a drink on a dark night: apparently there are a series of secret tunnels leading from Edinburgh castle down to the Palace of Holyrood, the premier royal residence in Scotland (even today it’s still a royal residence). The story seems to be that, when the tunnels were first discovered several hundred years ago, a piper was sent to explore them. As he navigated the tunnels he played his bagpipes so that his progress could be tracked by those above. At one point, however, the piping suddenly stopped. When a rescue party was sent, there was no trace of the piper to be found – he had simply vanished. Several search parties went into the tunnel system but no trace of the piper was ever found. The piper’s ghost still haunts Edinburgh today, walking endlessly along the underground tunnels beneath the castle, mournfully playing his pipes.

 

 

Exploring the castle took up our whole afternoon so we didn’t get to see any more of Edinburgh. We’ve got a couple more days in town however to do more exploring, so join us again if you want to see more of this intriguing city!

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 102


END OF THE HIGHLAND ROAD FOR US…

We pulled into the car rental place at Inverness with heavy hearts this afternoon; our Highland road trip came to an end today so we had to hand the keys back over and bid farewell to the glorious Scottish scenery we’ve become accustomed to. Our final day in Highlands finished on a high note, though (pardon the pun), with the sun shining brightly and another epic castle to thrill us.

 

 

We started out with a visit to one of Scotland’s most photographed icons: Eilean Donan Castle. This beautifully reconstructed fortress is a recognised Scottish icon, frequently appearing on shortbread biscuit tins, whisky labels, tea towels, and other Scottish-themed paraphernalia. It’s also played a starring role in numerous films and TV series (e.g. in “Highlander” as the home of Clan MacLeod; as the Scottish headquarters of MI6 in “The World Is Not Enough”; and in “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”).

 

 

 

 

The castle sits on a small rocky island at the meeting point of 3 lochs: Loch Alsh, Loch Long, and Loch Duich. The castle was founded in the 13th century and became a stronghold for Clan Mackenzie. Unfortunately the Mackenzies’ involvement in the Jacobite rebellions led to the castle’s destruction by government ships in 1719. Not that you can tell today; the castle ruins were salvaged and the fortress rebuilt by a descendent of the family in the early 1900s. We got to explore the castle and its grounds at our own pace and without interruptions this morning as we got there right on 9:00am when it opened, well before the coaches started arriving (by the time we left around 10:00am, however, there were 10 buses in the car park). It was great – really well restored and maintained with lots of cool nooks to explore. Unfortunately they don’t allow photos to be taken inside the castle, so you’ll have to believe us when we say it’s well worth a visit!

 

 

 

 

We left Eilean Donan Castle just as the car park filled up and drove along the shores of Loch Duich for a while, stopping every few kilometres for photos as the morning sun brought out the best of the landscape. Scotland in the sunshine is even more stunning!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The road then wound its way through Glen Shiel, another of Scotland’s glorious valleys. The road through Glen Shiel took us past foaming river, cascading waterfalls, and craggy mountains that still have patches of snow on their peaks. Even after a week of staring at landscapes like this, we’re still not immune to their beauty and would definitely rate Glen Shiel as one of the most beautiful valleys we’ve seen in Scotland.

 

 

 

 

Once we pulled out onto the A82 for the final run into Inverness the views got pretty boring (for Scotland) and the traffic gradually built up, until we finally pulled into “the big smoke” (i.e. Inverness) and went back to being car-less.

 

 

We’ve spent the past few hours here in Inverness exploring the town itself and have been pleasantly surprised: this is actually quite a cute town! Despite being VERY touristy, Inverness has lots of pretty buildings and a nice vibe to it.

 

 

 

 

Inverness is the “capital” of the Highlands and the northern-most city in the UK. Built along the banks of the River Ness, where the waters of Loch Ness drain towards the west coast and the ocean. Given the sunshine and warm(ish) temperatures we chose to spend most of our afternoon strolling along the banks of the River Ness, down to the Ness Islands and back to the town centre. It was a lovely afternoon wander and left us thinking Inverness is worth another visit!

 

 

 

 

One of the town’s main architectural highlights is Inverness Castle, a red sandstone structure built in 1836 which today houses the courts of Inverness. A succession of castles has stood on the site since 1057, including the castle in which Macbeth of Scotland murdered Donnchad of Scotland. Nothing like a bit of Highland intrigue…

 

 

After another day exploring around the Highlands we’re now attempting to address our sadness (at having to leave the Highlands) at a local pub. A couple more drinks and we should be ready to accept that we’re leaving for Edinburgh tomorrow…

 

 

To anyone who hasn’t been to the Scottish Highlands we say: DO IT! Our trips for making the most of your visit include:
• Be prepared to take your time – we zipped through the Highlands too quickly and really want to come back and do it all again, much slower.
• Don’t limit your explorations to the Isle Skye and Inverness; sure see them, but go further afield and prepare to have your socks knocked off!
• Prebook your accommodation in peak season or risk getting stuck with some truly craptacular digs. Better still, travel off-peak (i.e. NOT July or August) and have your pick of lodgings and take your time.
• Don’t scrimp on accommodation – the difference between a hotel room worth $60/ night and one that costs $100/night is MORE than worth the added expense.
• Stay in B&B and guesthouses away from the main towns, it’s so awesome being able to wake up by the lochs and in the glens rather than in town.
• Be prepared to spend more money than you think – it gets expensive up north in the remote parts of the country (which is fair enough, you’re MILES from anywhere up there).
• Eat the seafood! Langoustines, lobsters, salmon, mussels, oysters, haddock – it’s all amazingly fresh and delicious.
• Avoid haggis, it’s not food.
• Hire a small car – the roads are all sealed so you don’t need a 4WD. Also, given that the roads are very narrow at times, a big car would just be awkward
• Be prepared to go slow on the narrow roads and learn to use the passing places.
• Watch out for the sheep, wild goats, deer and other random road traffic when driving.
• Even if the weather’s foul, GET OUT THERE! The weather is so changeable and what starts out as a wet, windy day can turn out spectacular. Also the cloudy weather can make the scenery even more interesting, giving things a moody overtone that we learnt to love.
• Get off the road and into nature. Take time to go hiking, to do one or two of the many cruises around the lochs to see seals, otters and sea birds.
• Talk to the locals – we found Scottish people to be a little reserved at first, but crack a joke and they open up straight away. They’re crazy, funny, friendly and absolutely worth their weight in gold. There are some pretty “rough” people living out in the sticks up north, but they were all wonderful to us.

 

 

Since we left Glasgow we’ve been immersed in the wonder of the Scottish Highlands and we have absolutely LOVED it! We have fallen in love with this amazing landscape and its people, and cannot wait to return one day.

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 101


SKYE’S THE LIMIT

The Isle of Skye is one of Scotland’s top tourist destinations (after Edinburgh and Inverness/Loch Ness), and with good reason! We did a day-long driving tour of the island today and got to see picturesque villages, jagged mountains, velvety moors, cascading waterfalls, and towering sea cliffs. The island’s main appeal is the stunning scenery, and we only wish we had a week to spend exploring Skye!

 

 

Kyle of Lochalsh, where we spent last night, is on the Scottish mainland just across from Isle of Skye. So to reach Skye we simply drove over the rather spectacular Skye Bridge. Opened in 1995 the bridge replaced the ferry service that used to take people, cars, and trucks across the strait. Initially a toll bridge, it is now free* and makes crossing on to the Isle of Skye very easy**.

*Intense protests by locals in the early 2000’s led to the toll being removed. Hooray for people power!

**A side-effect of this is that the number of tourists who flock to Skye has boomed. Good news for local businesses, bad news if you want to have Skye all to yourself!

 

 

First stop across the bridge was the village of Kyleakin. The ferries to and from the mainland used to pull in here, but now this small town is just a collection of B&B’s by the water that most people by-pass in their hurry to get to Skye’s bigger attractions.

 

 

We pulled in at Kyleakin to enjoy the views across Loch Alsh and to take a peak at the ruins of Castle Maol. Constructed in the 15th century the castle was abandoned in the early 1600s. It was once the seat of the Mackinnon clan and controlled the strait between Skye and the mainland, through which all ships had to pass. Like all the castle ruins we’ve seen in the Highlands, Maol stands as a testament to the “changing of the guard” that happened in Scotland after the Jacobite Wars. It was after those defeats that the traditional Clan system gave way to British rule, and the Highland Clearances occurred, forever changing the face of Scotland.

 

 

The Isle of Skye comprises numerous peninsulas that radiate from a mountainous centre, dominated by the Cuillin Hills. The main road around Skye runs along the coastline, skirting the Cuillins and joining all the pretty little seaside hamlets. It was this road we followed today on our circuit of the island, going from Kyleakin to Portree, the island’s main settlement.

 

 

 

 

We had plans to stop in Portree for a coffee, but the sheer number of coaches and cars in town meant we couldn’t even find a parking spot! What was supposedly a cute harbour town had turned into a messy traffic jam that did not entice us to linger, so we moved on and kept driving until the peaks of Storr came into view.

 

 

Just north of Portree the Hills of Storr are a series of rocky outcroppings that face west; most famous of all the peaks of Storr is the Old Man of Storr. This pinnacle of rock stands alone and is iconic – this is one of the best known symbols of Skye. Accordingly, the car park near the base of the Old Man of Storr was overflowing with cars, camper-vans, and buses. It was such a shock to see this ridiculous traffic jam out in the middle of nowhere! We considered pulling in and trying to find a parking spot, but the thought of hiking up the trail to admire the Old Man in the midst of 1,000 other people was not that appealing so we took a couple of photos and kept going, hoping to find a quieter corner of Skye to enjoy.

 

 

Lealt Falls, not far down the road, are less well known and were a quieter stop. We walked along the gorge to the end and enjoyed views down into Lealt Gorge, across to the waterfall, and down to the beach below.

 

 

 

 

We really enjoyed Kilt Rock as well. The magnificent 55m high cliff looks strikingly similar to a pleated kilt and, legend has it, was formed when a giant hung his kilts along the cliffs to dry, thus causing the rocks to take on the shape of his pleated skirts. Cascading over the rock is Mealt Waterfall, which plummets directly from the top of the cliffs to the rocky coast below.

 

 

Continuing on we passed through the village of Staffin and turned inland, climbing up through the Quiraing Pass to cross over to the western coast. The views from the pass down across the farmlands and cliffs below was spectacular, and we got some great views across the Torridon Hills.

 

 

 

 

The road across to the western coast was a narrow, single lane track – like those we’ve been driving throughout the far northern highlands. Difference is there were A LOT more cars on the Isle of Skye today compared to up north (luckily no coaches – buses can’t get up the steep climb or fit on the narrow roads). As a consequence what should have been an easy 15km drive through the high mountains of Skye turned into a rather slow and painful crawl along the over-crowded mountain roads. At least the scenery was awesome!

 

 

 

 

We did eventually make it down the other side of the mountains and into the village of Uig. Positioned in the shelter of Uig Bay, this small port town was far less crowded than Portree and we easily found a cosy café to sit in for a coffee and some lunch.

 

 

 

 

Leaving Uig we stopped on the hill overlooking the village for a last photo stop beside Uig Tower. The Tower was built by Major William Fraser who owned the lands around Uig in the 19th century. The tower was constructed around 1860 and was designed to look like a Normal watch tower. It never served any useful purpose and is now just a rather quirky local attraction.

 

 

Our day sightseeing on Skye ended there really; from Uig we just drove back to Portree, hugging the western coastline and enjoying more of Skye’s beautiful scenery.

 

 

 

 

There’s so much more to Skye than the small part we saw, but we were rather put off by the crowds. We knew it would be busy during these peak summer months here in Scotland, but it surprised us just how many people there were traveling around the Isle today. After so long up in the vast expanses of the far north, where the number of tourists is minute compared to Skye, we were a little overwhelmed today by the number of people, coaches and rental cars out and about! It doesn’t take many cars to make the tiny roads on Skye become jammed, and for its pretty villages to feel crowded. We’d love to come back for a longer visit, but would come outside of peak next time (i.e. NOT July or August). There’s no doubt that the Isle of Skye is worth visiting, however. It is every bit as spectacular as we had read and we still really enjoyed our quick tour of the island today!

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 100


THE LONG WAY ROUND – ULLAPOOL TO LOCH ALSH

If you like to stand in awe of Nature, then the Scottish Highlands are for you. If you enjoy peace and quiet, and like to drive for hours, seeing nothing but glorious scenery and the occasional sheep, then the Scottish Highlands are for you. If you like changeable weather and icy cold winds, then the Scottish Highlands are for you. After 4 days of driving around the Scottish Highlands we can confidently say that they are indeed for us.

 

 

We started our road trip in Fort William, went across to Inverness, then up to Thurso, and back down to Ullapool yesterday. Today we continued southwards, down the western Highland roads to Loch Alsh. There are a couple of different ways you can do this journey; the shorter route is to cut inland and go through the farmlands in the middle. We went the long way round: all the way around the outside, hugging the coastline.

 

 

The western part of the Scottish Highlands is very mountainous and repeatedly our route today took us up into the mountains, through mountain passes and back down towards the water. The best views were often at the very top of the mountain passes, with the ocean or one of the region’s many lochs spread before us. Every time we went up in elevation the weather changed as well – crossing the mountains we were up in the clouds at times, whereas it was sunny and warm down along the coast. The weather, like the scenery, sure is variable up here!

 

 

 

 

We passed through a few fishing villages along the way, including Badralloch which has a lovely beach*; Aultbea (home to Loch Ewe Distillery, the smallest whiskey distillery in the world); and Poolewe. Positioned along the banks of the River Ewe, Poolewe is a popular spot for fly fishing. We stopped there for a while to watch a couple of guys casting their lines out into the water. Neither of them caught anythng in the time we were there, but it certainly looks like a relaxing way to spend your day.

*The beaches have really taken us by surprise – who thinks of Scotland and pictures beautiful beaches?! Before this trip, not us, that’s for sure! But it turns out that the beaches are stunning; the sand is fine and clean, the water pristine (though very cold), and the ocean full of life. Pity it’s just a wee bit to cold to go swimming….

 

 

 

 

By the time we reached Gairloch we were ready for a coffee and a break, so we pulled into one of the cafes in town and dosed ourselves with a dash of caffeine whilst chatting to the owner about the town’s history. Turns out, from 1528, the lands around Gairloch were owned Clan Mackenzie. The Mackenzies were exceptional landlords, it seems, as they refused to evict a single tenant during the Highland Clearances, despite the estate running at a loss. As a result, evicted Highlanders from other communities came to live in the area. As a result Gairloch remained a thriving community even as other Highland communities were dying. Even today it’s a much bigger, busier* town than others we passed through.

*Bearing in mind that “busy” is a relative term.

 

 

One of the highlights of our day came not long after we left Gairloch, when we rounded a bend and saw Loch Maree and the Torridon Hills before us.

 

 

Often touted as Scotland’s most beautiful lake, Loch Maree is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country. The forests around the loch have been conserved and are full of old growth trees, some up to 800 years old. In the centre of the loch there are 5 wooded islands, one of which contains the ruins of a chapel. This is believed to be where Saint Máel Ruba lived for a number of years during the 8th century, praying and seeking enlightenment. The same island also contains ancient stands of oak and holly which have been linked with ancient Scottish druids.

 

 

 

 

Around the loch are the Torridon Hills, a spectacular set of jagged peaks made of granite and quartzite that seemed to sparkle at time when the sun struck them. The main mountain to the west of Loch Maree is Beinn Eighe, a multi-peaked massif popular with mountain climbers and hikers. We stopped at the information centre at the base of Beinn Eighe to read a bit about the area’s geological history and see what hikes are available in the area. Little did we know: there are dozens of walks in and around Loch Maree and the Torridon Hills! You could spend a week in the area, enjoying the scenery and trekking through the hills*.

*Just bring lots of good insect repellant and all your best insect-proof clothing as the midges can be TERRIBLE here in summer. These tiny (<1mm) bugs come in giant swarms and they BITE like nothing we’ve ever experienced. A few times today stepping out of the car to enjoy a gorgeous view and take a few photos quickly turned into a made scramble back into the vehicle when swarms of these little buggers emerged to feast on our blood. There’s something they DON’T tell you in the brochure: ‘ware the Scottish midge, they can leave you covered in red welts and anaemic from blood loss!

 

 

 

 

We stopped a little on in Lochcarron for lunch. This small fishing village sits at the bottom of the pass that winds through Torridon Hills. Getting down into the village means lots of winding roads and hairpin bends on single lane roads most of the way*, not great if you’re prone to car sickness or driving anxiety, but awesome for views down to Loch Carron!

*Many of the roads throughout the Sottish Highlands are single lanes with wide point every 500m or so to allow for 2 cars to fit across. Much has been written in travel blogs and forums about how treacherous and dangerous these roads can be, but really it’s just about looking ahead and pre-empting the need to stop at a passing place if there’s another car coming. Worse than the single lanes roads are the bloody sheep wandering all over the place! And they seem to think the road is THEIRS and that YOU should be getting out of THEIR way. We were playing “Dodge the Ewe” the whole day. Makes for a rather exhausting day for the driver (i.e. Shane); he was dodging the sheep, watching for oncoming traffic, enjoying the scenery, and doing the actual driving stuff all day. My job: photos. Much easier being the passenger!

 

 

 

 

Just out of Lochcarron we stopped at the ruins of Castle Strome. Originally built by the Macdonalds in the 14th century, the castle was besieged by the Mackenzies in 1602. After the MacDonalds surrendered it was demolished and burned, and the ruins left to watch over Loch Carron.

 

 

 

 

Further around Loch Carron we stopped at the village of Plockton to admire the harbour and watch for seals.

 

 

 

 

We’re staying in the township of Kyle of Lochalsh for tonight, not far from Plockton. To reach our accommodation we just had a drive a few short miles through the countryside, through the village of Drumbuie, and around the bend. Shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes we thought…. That was until we ran into a herd of Scottish Highland cows in Drumbuie! They were just wandering around the village, munching on the grass on the verge, and blocking the whole damn road. No one seemed perturbed by the cows, and no one seemed in a hurry to move them along, so we just sat in the car and watched them for a while. A totally unexpected highlight of the day!

 

 

 

 

Eventually the cows moved off the road and we kept going, reaching the guesthouse we’re staying at around 5:00pm. It’s lovely here, by the shore of Loch Alsh. We had a great day driving down from Ullapool and are really enjoying the highlands. We’ve realised though that we’re moving too fast – we’re SEEING it all but not really EXPERIENCING it. A road trip like this is best done with a month up your sleeve, not a week! We would love to come back one day with more time and take the time to do some of the hikes around Loch Maree and Beinn Eighe; to go kayaking through some of the lochs around here; and to just have time to sit and enjoy the serenity of the Scottish Highlands.

 

 

 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN – DAY 99


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!