To misquote Charles Dickens;- “It is a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done; it is to a far, far better place that I go than I have ever known.” Yes time for a trip to the majestic north west Highlands. It’s difficult putting into words the feelings of anticipation and excitement during this visit; however to make this post more interesting, I will try:-)
Six nights had been booked long ago in a small cute, incredibly friendly guest house in a small cute, incredibly friendly coastal village. With a 7 hour drive up to the Highlands and the same back, this left only four full days to try and fit everything in. So it’s more of an adventure than a holiday, there’s so many places to see, things to do.
And it’s not all about the Munro’s. Lack of time & fitness have sadly conspired with dodgy knees to make completing all the 282 Scottish mountains over 3,000ft an unattainable goal. The upside is the many excellent lower mountains waiting to be discovered plus the coastal walks, boat trips, scenic drives, places of interest, wildlife, eagles, food, pubs & beer. Impossible to fit it all in especially when we only get up there twice a year. As my mate Alan points out, many of the Munro’s can be boring lumps so I haven’t got the time to devote solely to them, it’s all about the fun.
- Walking Targets – top mountain targets in order this trip were;- remote coastal Baosbheinn north of Torridon, the Red Cuillin of Skye, Beinn Damh in Torridon. All of these needed clear weather as they offered outstanding views (oddly no Munro’s this time). Love the coastal walks up there too so revisits to Rhubba Hunnish for whale spotting plus Sheenas Tea Rooms & the Sandaig Islands on our final morning would hopefully be included. Anything else would be a bonus.
- Concerns – apart from the unlikely event of a car breakdown, the main worries were fitness & weather, with a slight midge concern. At least in July the long daylight hours make the days seem longer, it’s a fine time to visit the Highlands.
- Fitness – a huge concern, due to lack of walking I wasn’t hill fit, this was gonna hurt.
- Food & real ale – sorry, this isn’t wild camping, it’s a highland holiday….erm adventure. Anyway we don’t get up there nearly enough so want to enjoy it whilst we can, with some decent food & ales where possible.
- Motivation – why do we do this? Easily forgotten amongst the focus on targets, timings, weather, route choices, tiredness, aches, pains, midges etc. Whilst on top of a 2,400ft mountain on the Isle of Skye, drooling over an incredible breathtaking view I was reminded that it really is all about the fun, whatever it takes! I’d rather have incredible clear views from a Highland coastal walk than trying to tick off a lumpy Munro in claggy rain & wind. Can get the latter experience anytime in the Lakes or Cheviots, so when in the Highlands I want to try and see stuff I can’t see the rest of the year:-)
- One trip one blog – wanted to include everything, so well done if you make it to the end.
- Most used words – views, weather, stunning, rain, amazing, wonderful, excellent, pint.
So what would make a good trip? Well there’s always a chance of 6 rain filled days so we start with low expectations and take it a day at a time. For starters we just hope for good weather on that special drive north. This time we definitely got it:-)
Excellent scenic 6hr 25mins drive up to Plockton from Hexham, quick stop for ice cream at Tyndrum, quick photo stop at Eilean Donan Castle. Finishing with the amazing single track coastal road from Kyle giving awesome views to the Cuillin & Applecross hills. Arrived in Plockton at 7.45pm, (more on this drive see Driving to the NW Highlands).
Excellent meal at the Plockton Shores Bistro, then the traditional evening walk across the Wicker Man causeway, past Hamish MacBeths house to the loch pontoon.
Disappointing ale choice at the Plockton Inn, slightly better at the Plockton Hotel, then back to the guest house to unpack and then repack for the hills. Tomorrow’s forecast was excitingly and surprisingly excellent 🙂
Accommodation was Mackenzies guest house on Harbour St, home of Callum’s Seal Cruise, ran by wife Jane & trained opera singer daughter Fiona. Offering the most incredible views over Loch Carron, there’s 3 bedrooms with a shared breakfast table ensuring everyone chats in the morning. It’s very social and guests are often foreign travelling around Britain so always interesting. A wholesome cooked breakfast is available but we find at our age the best fuel for a hill day are their tasty waffles:-)
And today would definitely be a mountain day with both the Met Office & MWIS promising scorchio weather. Brilliant, this made decision making easy, we were off to tackle number one target remote Baosbheinn, and we were packing the suncream.
Day One – Long sunny day up Baosbheinn (pron Booshven)
We first caught sight of this coastal mountain from Beinn Alligin back in 2001 and were immediately fascinated by it’s shape & remoteness. Having recently done Torridon’s Slioch and Beinn Eighe we fancied something different so Baosbheinn had become no 1 target. After a 65 min drive from Plockton via Achnasheen, we arrived at the Red Barn to be met by masses of evil clegs thumping against the car window. It’s a 7 mile walk-in before the ascent even starts, it was a boiling hot cleggy midgey day and my fitness slowed us down. It took ages but we did it and the views were simply stunning, I like a bit of blue sea with my mountain views nowadays so Baosbheinn very definitely hit the spot. I’ll do a separate blog on this later with many photos, here’s three & a video.
At 2,871ft Baosbheinn is a Corbett so many Munro baggers may miss this one which is a pity, this is a mountain to remember, it’s position parallel to the coast almost unique.
The hot weather, scale and terrain caught me out making us very late, I blame the views too as they’re absolutely compulsive on that mountain. This meant a rush to find somewhere to eat and after a couple of hasty phone calls we ended up at the Old Inn Gairloch. Food was okish with easily the best pint of the trip, Dundonnell breweries An Teallach ale, discovered last July in Ullapool. The Old Inn serves food till after 9pm, a massive bonus in the Highlands. Had a quick drive north around Gairloch’s main village then a speedy drive to Plockton with not one car ever in front of me. More of that please!
Day 2 – Plan A,B,C + D, a taste of Red Cuillin mixed with Rubbha Hunnish
Slept poorly, my body totally knackered, if we were going to have a rain day could this be it please? Nope, another stunning morning with forecasts suggesting a deterioration later, but enough time for a mountain. With rain forecasted tomorrow every weather opportunity had to be taken, so after more breakfast waffles we headed off to walk target number 2, Glamaig, Red Cuillin, Isle of Skye.
There’d been no time to sort gear the previous night, so it was a lateish start with my body protesting slightly. Thoughts of Skye soon changed that and after a 45 min drive we arrived at Sligachan – and look at those blue skies!! Love Skye, enough said. Some slight uncertainty on todays route, the preferred one being the horseshoe including the two Beinn Deargs which looked fine from the car park. Not sure I had the energy also timewise it would turn into a rush which defeated the aim. The main reason for doing Glamaig was the reported sensational views of the island & of course the Cuillin Ridge. We wanted to sit up there with binocs and take it all in rather than be dashing back, so plan B, no horseshoe just Glamaig, let’s go!
Anyone notice that cloud behind the Cuillin? Anyway some slight uncertainty now over the start as my downloaded Walk Highlands route suggested starting left of the Allt Daraich gorge, so we strolled up to the Sligachan Bunkhouse to suss it out. Met the chatty guy who runs the place who explained they had to install a gate out back due to the Walk Highlands routes. Traditionally the term “left of the stream” was always viewed from upstream, causing some misinterpretation! He said the route was boggy plus the scree ascent from the west was tortuous & if he was going solely up Glamaig he’d go straight up & down. This also involved more tortuous scree of course, either way was tough. We discussed the Glamaig hill race, shook our heads incredulously over the times then went back to the car to regroup. By then that bank of cloud behind the Cuillin had become very noticeable, surely that wasn’t the weather front coming in 4 hours early, naa impossible. Right then, a direct ascent of Glamaig it was, change of mindset, refocus and off we set, let’s go!
We made the short road walk to the path used for the Glamaig Hill Race thanks to the advice from Bunkhouse man. Anxious glances now being made to that cloud bank which had advanced remarkably. The Cuillin Ridge was now in cloud and it felt like this wasn’t some temporary thing, we’d seen interesting weather here before and this was only going to get worse. Bla Bheinn was now also disappearing all within half an hour of perfect blue skies. We stopped for urgent talks, if Glamaig wasn’t going to be clear then today would be a waste of energy as we’d have to return one day for those views. We figured the evening front had arrived early and that meant rain. Can’t remember us ever doing this before but after 10 mins Glamaig was called off and substituted for plan C – head out to Trotternish away from the big mountains for the Quirrang or Plan D, Rhubbah Hunnish.
Five mins later we were in the car heading along the Skye coast northwards past Portree anxiously scanning the skies. Quick stop at the Kilt Rock viewpoint, couldn’t believe the cool wind that had come out of nowhere. Not that wind was a problem but Quirrang was quickly ruled out as this was another route for a fine day.
So finally we were left with Plan D, our third trip to Rubha Hunish, a walk out to the most northerly point of Skye and the best place on the island for whale spotting.
It’s a 2.5 mile level walk out to the basalt cliff edge where an interesting steep rocky path descends to the lower headland. Full details here on Rubha Hunish, I can’t guarantee whales but can guarantee an excellent adventure.
After walking round the fascinating eastern cliff edges, we sat down on the most northern point staring at the sea, waiting and staring, and staring, and look there’s a whale!!
Nope, just the swirling currents where the waters meet, but this is an excellent spot for Dolphins, Porpoises, Minke Whales etc. This time I saw nothing, Alan saw a fin though which we assumed to be Dolphin, 2 years ago we briefly saw a Pilot Whale. Leaving here is difficult however after retracing the route up the rocky steps there’s an extra bonus visit to the fascinating Lookout, an old Coastguard station now a bothy with one helluva view. Binoculars are supplied and an interesting guest book listing whale sightings. We met a couple on the way there for the night, it’s a special place, more info here on the Lookout.
During the afternoon that weather front had gradually engulfed the Trotternish Ridge and Outer Isles. Rain looked imminent and drizzle started just after we drove off. This time we went west via Uig to make a circular drive back via Portree. Food was booked in Broadford and we managed to fit in a pint of Pinnacle at the Slig.
Food at the Red Skye restaurant west of Broadford, nice, very friendly and busy with locals which is a good sign, a little overpriced. Pint at the Plockton Hotel. With hindsight we were happy with the days decisions, could have been much worse.
Day 3 – Rain Day – Being a Tourist around the Kyle & Eilean Donan
Day 3 was a washout with grey clag, rain and drizzle. After a lazy morning we drove out the back of Plockton for a possible coastal walk but the rain kept forcing us back to the car.
Given the limited rain options we headed for the nearest big town to sample all it had to offer. Yes it’s Kyle of Lochalsh and it’s offerings in poor weather are starkly modest. After walking round the hardware store and any other shop that seemed slightly interesting we ended up down on the docks and train station. Suddenly a mass of activity as the ridiculously short 2 coach Inverness train pulled in jam-packed with people. Taxis arrived, bikes were unfolded, cases were lugged and then suddenly normality returned. Anyone notice those logs on the right!
The logs were being delivered by a convoy of lorries then being loaded into a boat by a crane driver who obviously has a job for the summer.
The rain eased momentarily so we drove off for a pint at the Clachan pub at Dornie, we’d briefly checked this pub out before and it seemed good. Also saw an advert in Kyle for a mountain shop 914 Outdoor near Eilean Donan castle so would call in there too. The shop had ceased trading at Xmas and the pub was closed till tea time; so we called into the Eilean Donan car park instead.
Turned out the castle was having a re-enactment weekend by the Sealed Knot Society. Lots of shooting and dodgily dressed highlanders. We didn’t go in, just hung around the car park and visitor centre. Wow it was busy, people from all over the world descending from cars, coaches, cycles, motorbikes, motorhomes, you name it. Staggering in fact! Scotland’s most photographed castle, rebuilt in 1923.
Food back at the Plockton Shores again, very good! Tomorrow’s forecast also very good!
Day 4 – Return to the Red Cuillin & this time it’s personal
Body rested, forecast encouraging, so time for a second attempt at Glamaig and this time we’d try for the full horseshoe route, this time it’s personal:-) Back at Sligachan then a slow soggy slog up to the first top Beinn Dearg Mheadhonach. The cloud did come down during our ascent but by the time we reached the top conditions had improved and gradually became near perfect. Whilst the mainland peaks remained smothered most of the day, we had blue sky on Skye with quite staggering views. Very happy with our route choice today and broad smiles all round. Particularly pleasing looking down at the familiar winding Skye coastal road along to the Trotternish Ridge with the Outer Hebrides beyond.
We discovered that the advice 2 days ago from Bothy man was spot on, the southern scree slope up Glamaig is a right bugger. We tried picking out lines of grass amongst the crumbling scree but the angle was never anything other than unrelenting. Neither of us would’ve been happy slogging up this to be met by a mist filled top. Luckily it was quite the opposite with amazingly wondrous views, these hills deserve their recommendations.
Amidst the mountain splendour up on glorious Glamaig was one nagging undeniable truth. No way were we going back down the ascent route, so this meant a direct scree descent to the Sligachan. Time to lengthen the poles, tighten the knee supports, grimace and go for it.
We tried following fence poles (advice of bothy man) then Alan went left, me right as we valiantly and spectacularly failed to find a decent route down. The scree was vicious, we had to keep moving, the angle never wavered, there was no rest for old men.
My knees may never recover but that was a damn good day. Food at Plockton Shores.
Day 5 – Varied Day – Calum’s Seal Trip, Rain, Coast, Evening RNLI Exercise
An iffy forecast for our last full day in Plockton with rain & low cloud due by late morning. Today would be made up as we go along, firstly the essential experience of any Plockton visit, Calum’s Seal Cruise. The peaceful sheltered scenic waters of Loch Carron make for a wonderful boat trip full of interest with Calum’s entertaining commentary lifting this experience well above other local trips (Kyle). Can’t recommend this enough, it’s more than just the seals, Calum is the perfect host full of humour and local stories.
Another wonderful experience, I was too busy watching the seals to take photos. With almost perfect timing the rain arrived as we landed. Before heading back to the room for a cuppa we did a quick walk around Bank St spotting a man washing beer kegs outside a green shed. We had unwittingly discovered the Plockton Brewery, ran by Andy an ex naval officer who has been brewing beer here in 2007. Cheekily I asked for a brewery tour and cheerfully he obliged.
Andy does this as a hobby mainly supplying the Plockton Inn rather than the Plockton Hotel, we assumed the latter prefers stacking up the number of new guest ales. Common mistake this, I’m sure tourists would much rather have a local brew choice especially when it’s a good pint. Apparently the Inn usually also stocks London Pride because there’s a local guy very keen on it; now there’s consumer power for you:-)
We thanked Andy for greatly improving the local real ale choice and for his time, nice guy. Then back to the guest house for a cuppa. Despite the rain we took a gamble and made the short drive out to Duirinish station again to attempt a quick coastal walk. The Highland coos were out and we drove past this……
Parking at the station we walked across the level crossing then down a narrow ‘road’ to Port Ban then Port-an-Eorna. The route’s from Walk Highlands, a 2 mile coastal circuit that despite the weather was very enjoyable. Always nice being at the coast up here, would be even nicer in decent conditions with views to Applecross & Skye. Still I’d definitely do this again.
Spotted a few seals with the binocs & briefly chatted with a local guy walking his Golden Retriever. He told us the spot below was good for otters, we saw none of course.
Raining again so back to the guesthouse where we met Calum outside who invited us for a special evening boat trip. The Kyle lifeboat crew had asked for help with an exercise, Calum would sail out in the Sula Mhor then cut engines so the RNLI could tow us back. We were right up for this, our last evening in Plockton too.
The weather had deteriorated and it was unusually windy out on Loch Carron. A brief phone call by Calum confirmed the rescue exercise was still on, in fact all agreed it was going to be very useful practice conditions.
The RNLI arrived into the Loch at impressive speed having taken just 15 mins from Kyle. Ropes were carefully attached and the towing operation began.
The high crosswind was proving an interesting challenge with the crew eventually roping their lifeboat to the Sula Mhor so they could steer both boats carefully to the pontoon. This took some doing but they managed it and it all made for compulsive viewing.
A second lifeboat crew had driven over from Kyle and were waiting on the pontoon. They helped secure the Sula Mhor before taking their turn on a second exercise.
Unfortunately we couldn’t stay onboard as food was booked at the Plockton Inn at 8.30pm. Remarkably the second exercise never happened as a real rescue took over, with a stricken yacht losing it’s mooring and in need of help, even made the local news here. Many thanks to Calum for the invite, loved every minute, fascinating final evening in Plockton.
Final Day 5 – Sheenas Tea Hut & The Sandaig Islands then Home
Waffles for breakfast, a good chat with Jane & Calum then it was goodbye to their guesthouse and to Plockton. The word reluctant doesn’t sum it up, however still just enough time for a final adventure. On the way south we diverted to Sheenas Tea Hut and the Sandaig Islands. The Tea Hut is at the end of the road from Glenelg to Arnisdale. Sheena has been serving tea here for years and it must be one of the most remote and wonderful situations to have a cuppa. Calum had heard she may have retired however we were reassured by a local at Corran that she was still there. As we approached the bungalow we were met by a smiling Sheena, she said “I’ll always be open, until they take me away in a box, I like meeting people”. Tea is £1 a mug, some more details here.
From Sheenas we drove back along the coast parking at Upper Sandaig for a quick walk down to the Sandaig Islands. Another wonderful setting, former home of author, basking shark harpoonist & otter man Gavin Maxwell. Lucky again with the weather as it had brightened up just in time.
Luckily the tide was out and after the winding forest track down to the beach we sat on a high point looking for otters. We saw several boats, several Oyster Catchers, one Glenelg ferry and several seals, but sadly once again no otters.
The route back through a field of giant ferns mixed with camouflaged brambles was an unenjoyable challenge, so instead I’ll end with a picture of white beach from Sandaig. More details on the Sandaig Islands here.
And so that’s it, a 6 hour drive back to Hexham then beer at the Dipton Mill. If you’ve actually read this far then give yourself a prize, alcohol may help 🙂
Rather than a bagging trip this was a varied adventure, we covered a few miles, met lots of locals and enjoyed every minute. My knees may one day recover from Glamaig, the Sandaig Island bracken may one day be removed from my boots; but the memories will remain for ever.