Highlands and Islands
The Highlands and Islands offer so many places worth visiting that it is easier to think of the few places perhaps best avoided. Avoiding the tourist traps is usually, for me at least, a priority. This becomes ever more difficult with the number of Gore-Tex clad visitors growing steadily. Many of these elite travellers have trotted all over the world looking for authenticity. They often find it, so they tell me, in Scotland and especially in the Highlands and Islands.
There are so very many places still to discover, off the beaten track. This, for me at least, is possible because many of these places require a boat to get to them. Once, when the sea was our superhighway, this was not the problem it can be today. Nowadays though, most folk lack that means of transport. Fortunately, ruling out these all but inaccessible places still leaves a plethora of opportunity for the visitor looking for a small adventure.
Each and every one of our inhabited islands are unique and special places well worth visiting. There are similarities, for sure, but no two are alike and each has its own allure – its own brand of enchantment. Almost all have public ferry services and many of them these days have hotels, B&Bs and bunkhouses. Described in books by early travellers like Martin Martin and the often phlegmatic Samuel Johnson, these islands have been described and recorded more recently in publications by a host of writers. Lately writers strive to delve deeper into local lifestyles and the zeitgeist that varies from community to community. Hosts of environmental writers flock to these places, descending in summer like corncrakes, looking not for mates, but material; combing the strand and machair meadows and climbing hills in search of inspiration. One place floats to the top of my list. Finlaggan – surely an inspiration for Tolkien, and certainly for me.
To be honest, I haven't booked a summer holiday in Scotland for decades. A pity, because when it is hot and sunny, the landscape of our country is spectacular, but one can never be sure that the sun will emerge. It is possible, for the entire 'Glasgow Fair' – the second two weeks in July – to rain every day for a fortnight. Now that's bad enough, but with damp warm weather emerges the blasted midge, that tiny flying tyrant – billions
of them – that infest our every waking moment as soon as we step outside. So, a planned holiday in advance of an accurate weather forecast, especially in the West of Scotland, is a gamble. No amount of Avon Skin-So-Soft deters the blighters. In my experience, the best preventative measure is not to go at all. The plan is not to plan: your weather app is your holiday guide.
Midges hate sunny and windy weather, so as soon as a five-day window of opportunity opens, off I go to my mum's house in Rothesay, Isle of Bute – the most accessible island on the west coast. A 40-minute train journey from the splendid Glasgow Central station, to the Victorian glory of the famous station at Wemyss Bay, followed by a short crossing on a ferry, takes you to the island.
Bute has spectacular views, particularly to Arran from the stunning beach of Ettrick Bay. Grand architecture, beautiful gardens, and an array of flora and trees – including palm trees – give the island a distinctive riviera feel when the weather is hot and sunny. If you haven't visited Bute, I highly recommend you do – but check the weather forecast before you set off!
Barvas Moor, Lewis
We had been to Harris several times, but not to Lewis. In Stornoway, we found a comfortable B&B with some wonderful paintings and sketches on the walls. Many of them depicted Glasgow streets and tenements, many animated by the life of the city. We had a car and decided to take a look at Callanish. It was a fine day, and we looked for the back roads. After some zigs and zags, we found ourselves on a single track road, heading more or less south across moorland and rough pasture; not a soul or a house in sight. Overhead, the most extraordinary clouds were building – nimbus and altocumulus – huge, powerful and inexorable. Other-worldly. They were unlike anything we had ever seen on Canada's prairies, around the Mediterranean with its strange, vertical funnel clouds, or at sea. As we drove south across what we later found to be Barvas Moor, they felt more and more like a kind of timeless, ancient gateway to the power of the stones at Callanish.
Later, back at Stornoway, one of the partners who ran the B&B told us that he was a cloud-watcher. The extraordinary cloud formations above Barvas Moor were the reason he had come to live on Lewis. They were utterly unique he thought and, like us, he had never seen anything like them anywhere else on his travels.
I choose the ruins of the village of Solam near Ardbeg on the Isle of Islay. This eerie, but fascinating place is reputed to be where a whole village died after contracting a disease brought by visiting sailors. Nearby villagers brought food to a mid point and knew all had died when the food was not collected.
Scarista beach, Harris
This heavenly place often crops up in broadsheet lust-lists of the best beach destinations in the UK. However, it is fairly hard to get to if you're a mainlander, so I don't think there's a danger of it becoming a tourist trap any time soon. One of many jewels on the coastline of West Harris, Scarista is an endless white sandy beach fringed by spectacular, crashing waves. It is a beloved place to me, as I spent many happy holidays there as a child with my family. Despite the reputation of the Hebrides for rain (so much rain), I have distinct memories of blissfully hot, sunny days in Scarista. Blue skies, blue sea, the roar of waves, and an unreal peacefulness: this is the stuff of precious summer memories.
Even better, I don't think I've ever been on this beach and spotted another soul in the distance. If you like to get away from the crowds on your holiday, this is the spot for you. Take a dip in the sea – I promise the Atlantic Ocean will give your body a refreshing wake-up call; and after you get back out, a mild day will feel positively balmy.
Bay of Clachtoll
I can never get over the scale of north-west Sutherland – those massive mountains of ancient Lewisian gneiss, those sheer sweeps of sea. It's a landscape for heroes and poets, of great journeys and ancient quests, and a challenge to the whole of Scotland to come up with a vision big enough to be worthy of the wonders provided by Nature.
You can get a feeling for past glories at the Bay of Clachtoll, just by the little community of Stoer. Here the dedicated work of local volunteers, working with archaeological support to clear rubble and sift for clues, has opened up the ruins of an Iron Age broch. Two millennia ago it would have been a tall tower, and you can still see two metres of ringwall, the entrance passage with its great triangular lintel, and a possible internal stair.
The remains of brochs can be found across the north and west of Scotland, particularly along the seaboard. From their often commanding positions, they are frequently said to be forts, but at Clachtoll the broch sits snugly beside the shore, set on a rocky outcrop, in a more sheltered part of the bay, the kind of place where you might pull in for a night's rest after a long day on the sea.
The group working on the broch found evidence of a sudden and catastrophic collapse of the tower, but also evidence of a fire and what looks like oil. Could it have been an ancient light, a welcoming sight for trading ships going between the Irish Sea and the Northern Isles? Sit on a rock at the Bay of Clachtoll and enjoy wondering.
It breaks my heart to say this, but throughout the tourist season please avoid the Highland village of Drumnadrochit on the shores of Loch Ness, 14 miles down the Great Glen from Inverness. My maternal grandparents lived there. My mother's older sister settled there after spending the war in London. Family ancestors are buried there. Our childhood summer holidays there were happy. It was a small village then: a curve of cottages round an open green, a hotel, a branch of the Bank of Scotland, a post office – where I got my aunt's packs of du Maurier cigarettes – and a village store where we spent our pocket money and ruined our teeth on Tobermory Tatties and Highland Toffee. Later I fancied the lad who served behind the counter, but he was spoken for. He'll be a grandfather now.
We walked. For miles. Climbed hills, dodged jeeps thundering down rough winding tracks, talked to elderly crofters resting on shepherds' crooks accompanied by restless collie dogs, explored abandoned houses, fished in the River Enerick, or attempted to, clambered over the ruins of Urquhart Castle, found a secret waterfall and cheered on the competitors at the annual sheepdog trials. Once I stepped over a snake, coiled asleep by the road during a heatwave.
Last time I visited was July 2014. A rainy day, which didn't help. A place swamped by touristification. An overcrowded carpark entailing impatient queues. Shops selling the very worst tartan tat. Drive through it fast. Move on to other places. If enough people leave it alone, maybe, just maybe, it will regain the charm it once had that attracted watercolour artists, potters and strolling antipodean backpackers wondering if they could pitch their tent in my grandparents' back garden.
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