Highland Diary of a Lowland Laddie
With the price of package holidays abroad now within the budget of most Scots, is there any point in taking holidays at home? As an Ayrshireman living in the shadow of Robert Burns’ cottage, I thought it was time to head north and find out for myself.
Saturday. Set off at 12.15 precisely after loading car with week’s supply of food. Don’t know whether they sell food in the Highlands. Drive through Glasgow, over Erskine Bridge and along the banks of Loch Lomond before stopping at the Green Welly Shop in Tyndrum for Cullen Skink, the haddock soup which sounds nasty and tastes divine. Woman at till informs me that it is the same recipe introduced by her mother twenty years ago. Reassuring to find that one of the main intersections for all sorts of tourists is clean, tasteful and serving real food despite the high turnover.
Carry on over Rannoch Moor and through Glencoe. The scale of these mountains makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end, no matter how many times you’ve been through it. Feels like you’re being wheeled round God’s big Monopoly board in your wee silver car. Up through Fort William, Ben Nevis is burying its head in the clouds, denying us the opportunity to raise our eyes above the dullness of the architecture so favoured of town planners in the sixties and seventies. On to Invergarry and Spean Bridge, to Dornie and Ardelve, the small cluster of houses, hotels and cottages on the shore of Loch Duich, which is our final destination.
First sight of Eilean Donan Castle and the car almost leaves the road as the senses come to terms with such incredible natural beauty. No wonder this is the most photographed scene in Scotland. Soon we will have added considerably to the total.
Sunday. The rented cottage overlooking Beinn Fhada is owned by Germans, which somehow doesn’t come as a surprise. Accommodation is immaculate, and views are quite stunning, a cliche which will be difficult to avoid as the week progresses. Quick look at comments in visitors’ book confirms first impressions and provides evidence of other national stereotypes. “We enjoyed the ruggishness and the beauty of Scotland,” enthused Ginny and John of New York, while Bill and Sue of Northamptonshire advised that the Co-op at Broadford was the best local supermarket to be found. (To be fair, they also mentioned seeing a white-tailed eagle on Skye, but why waste an opportunity to indulge a superiority complex).
Return in the evening to take more photographs of Eilean Donan, ancient seat of Clan MacRae. It is now illuminated dramatically against the mountain silhouettes. Have yet to discover that the castle, scene of many battles and Hollywood movies, was actually built as a summer retreat, and is considerably younger than the Queen Mother. Ach well, it still looks magical.
Monday. Drive short distance to Plockton to investigate the village referred to as “the Jewel of the Highlands”, but progress is temporarily halted by herd of Highland cattle on road at Duirnish. Last time we saw such fine examples was on a bar of MacGowan’s toffee, but these guys look so used to having their photographs taken they could have their own agent. Over the single-track road to Plockton, scene of “Hamish MacBeth”, and immediately it becomes obvious why programme-makers can set any old nonsense in a place like this and it’s bound to be a hit. There is a genuinely Mediterranean atmosphere here, with a colourful display of boats enclosed within the scalloped edges of the loch, a few tropical palms in the shorefront gardens, and French accents in the air.
Wander down to tne main pier where Angus is unloading several boxes of plump fresh langoustines. These particular beauties are bound for Barcelona, which is a bit of a shame really, unless you happen to be Spanish. When I offer to relieve him of a handful of his catch for a fiver, Angus agrees, but halfway through this complex business deal he decides it is not worth the bother and returns the magnificent creatures to their crate. Was it something I said? Were his bosses watching our every move in their binoculars? Whatever the reason, Angus descends into a good old Scottish huff. (Note:The name of the fisherman in this minor incident has been invented, not to protect the innocent, but because by this point I didn’t have the courage to ask him what it was. The story does have a happy ending, however, when the skipper of a bigger boat in Kyle of Lochalsh is happy to exchange a large bag of goodies for a couple of drams for himself and his mate.)
Tuesday. Drive over the Skye bridge for the first time. This controversial piece of engineering has a natural simplicity, and, is surprisingly pleasing on the eye, unlike the ridiculously high toll charges. However, we console ourselves with the fact that it is better to be aesthetically ripped-off than to have it done in an ugly way.
Make our way slowly up to Portree, with the amazing Cuillin mountains dominating the skyline. It’s not difficult to imagine what draws people to climb to the top of these incredible peaks. For most of us simply to look up is enough to make the pulse race.
Arrive in Portree, the island’s main town, to find it bustling with coachloads of tourists, one of whom is animatedly complaining to her husband that, “There’s nothing here.” Well, I suppose if you discount some of the finest mountain scenery in Europe, birds of prey circling every hilltop and glen, sea lochs teeming with wildlife, and the kind of natural light which attracts painters and photographers from all over the world, she does have a point.
Decide to drive north-west, to Dunvegan and Colbost, where we investigate the highly-rated Three Chimneys Restaurant. The menu certainly looks inviting, but the idea of paying hefty supplements for fish in what is essentially a fish restaurant does not appeal. (Prejudicial note to enterprising restaurateurs: try introducing a surcharge for customers who insist on eating red meat). While pressing our noses to the window and slavering over the menu, become aware of the restaurant’s fish supplier parking alongside. Duly purchase a couple of salmon fillets, some lightly smoked haddock and a piece of monkfish tail, all of of which will later transform itself into a delicious fish soup.
Wednesday. Decide to head “inland” along the length of Loch Carron, and take the tourist route up and over the steep, single-track road towards Achnasheen. Almost cause a pile-up when distracted by the sight of a buzzard landing on top of a roadside telegraph pole. Pass a sign indicating “Stromeferry (no ferry)”, and reflect on whether it wouldn’t have been easier to rename the village Strome, than to replace all the road signs simply to avoid misleading the unwary traveller.
Stop the car high above the village of Strome, excessively picturesque with or without a ferry, and marvel at what looks from this height like a miniature train set. It is actually the main line from Kyle to Inverness. To complete the picture, in the small car park a woodcutter (sculptor? artist?) is creating pieces of garden furniture using only a chainsaw and a great deal of dexterity. The whine of the chainsaw he has closed out by wearing a set of earphones, while the volume of heavy metal from his music box is set at maximum to compensate. The rest of us have to listen to both, but not even that, nor the screaming appearance of two RAF Tornadoes, adding a touch of drama to the theatrical setting,can detract from the view in front of us.
Enjoy a leisurely tour of the loch before returning to base for a relaxing pint of Guiness in front of the Dornie Hotel, while watching the sun falling towards Skye and the geese flying over Loch Long.
Thursday. Set off to explore the “Garden of Skye”, the southern part of the island, so-called because of the lush nature of the vegetation, a distinct contrast to the rugged landscape of the north. Drive south-west from Broadford past Kinloch Lodge, home of Claire Macdonald, rightly celebrated cook and author. Remark how appropriate the setting for someone who knows exactly what to do with fish and shellfish. Drop in to the exhibition of Laurence Broderick sculptures at Eilean Iarmain, a collection of pieces in bronze and marble, many of them representations of otters, in recognition of the life and works of Gavin Maxwell who spent much of his life on Skye. The grace and suppleness of these elusive creatures is exquisitely captured. I can think of at least one public gallery of ‘modern’ art which should buy these wholesale and clear out their existing stock.
Follow the roller-coaster road to the end of the island and Aird of Sleat, where we find the modest gallery of Peter McDermott, whose watercolours capture better than most (and there are plenty who are trying) the ever-changing nature of the landscape. We are greeted cordially by the artist’s “over-friendly dog” and by his wife Jane, who is happy to explain the background to their work.
After a positive feast of culture, it is time to think of food, and on the return journey we stop to pick mussels from the rocks in a tiny bay at Armadale, under the watchful eye of a hungry heron. The ferry from Mallaig is getting bigger as we leave the shore in the calm of early evening.
Friday. Spend much of the morning bird-spotting from the kitchen window, and debating whether the magnificent creature that sweeps down from the hill within a few metres of the cottage is a buzzard, or the more exotic sea-eagle, which has been successfully reintroduced to the Highlands after an absence of almost a century. Whatever it is, we are privileged to see it.
Later in the day, we take the twisting road from Shiel Bridge across to Glenelg, stopping to admire the Pictish brochs in Glen Beag, built in the Iron Age in an environment which will have changed little since,the eerie silence broken only by the occasional bleating of a sheep. Have our first encounter of the week with the fearsome Highland midge while watching the two-car ferry make the short crossing to Kylerea on Skye. Beat a hasty retreat, the Five Sisters of Kintail rising higher as we ride the hairpin bends back to sea level.
Can’t resist returning to Plockton in the evening, in time to watch some tidy dinghies racing round the bay. Fish supper from JJ’s Takeaway in Kyle is a culinary delight to end the week.
As we leave for home in the morning,looking over our shoulders for a last glimpse of that castle and the spot where Boswell and Dr Johnson stopped for tea during their Highland tour of 1773, we recall the famous doctor’s opinion that, “Scotland is a vile country,” and wonder, “Where the hell did Boswell take him?”