From Colluden we headed south, spending the evening in Grantown on Spey in the heart of the Cairngorms before heading on to Scone just north of Perth. Our campsite was (and hopefully still is) on the edge of the racecourse, which in turn is adjacent to The Palace of Scone (pronounced ‘Scoon’ and apparently written variously as Scon, Scoon, Scoan, Scoine, Schone, Skoon, Skune, Skuyn, Skuyne, Sgoin, Sgàin and Sgoinde. Whoever said that blogs couldn’t be educational?) As is happens our visit coincided with the International Medieval Combat Federation’s annual dust-up, presumably they selected Scotland as a venue on the basis that it would be a good place to start a fight? Having failed to blag our way in for free to see a bit of gratuitous violence we opted instead for a cycle ride along the banks of the River Tay, which was an altogether quieter, and probably more enjoyable, experience.
The final night of our trip was spent at the campsite in Bellingham where, having failed to book in advance, we fortunately managed to secure the last available space – albeit we had to settle for a slot in the carpark. Next morning, after a flying visit for coffee with the Brown family at Wark, we managed to fit in a great walk along a section of Hadrian’s Wall at Steel Rigg. Our stroll included Sycamore Gap which was famously shown in the 1991 film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves – quite how Kevin Costner managed to get from there to Nottingham so quickly remains a mystery to me.
The weather was kind and views along this part of the Wall are fantastic; all-in-all an excellent conclusion to a great holiday.
One of the basic and immutable laws of holiday blogging is ‘the longer the blog goes on, the less frequent the entries become’. It’s not that you have less to say, just that for some reason as the days go on it becomes more of an effort to remember where you’ve been and what you’ve done. So that’s my excuse sorted, now let’s get on with the blog.
The weather in the Scottish Highlands in May can be wonderful – in fact I think that I may have promised as much when I first raised this trip as a possibility. To be fair we have had some sunshine and there have been days when it hasn’t rained too much, but in all honesty the weather has been just a little unkind and not quite what we had hoped for. For night 7 we wild-camped just above the picturesque village of Sheildaig where the wind blew and the rain hammered down on the Van giving us a true Highland experience. Fortunately we managed to fit in a short walk to the village pub before the weather set in, and as we arrived ‘home’ we watched the Hebridean Princess as she anchored for the night in Loch Sheildaig. Now, that’s one way to tour the Scottish coastline in real luxury- and at only £500/night per passenger, what a bargain!
From Sheildaig we headed south towards Loch Carron. On balance we decided to give Applecross a miss – the weather was poor and the prospect of yet more difficult single-track roads didn’t really appeal. Plus, we decided that Denise’s buttocks probably weren’t up to the challenge. From Loch Carron we headed back towards Inverness and in doing so we completed the North Coast 500 and the circumnavigation – disappointingly there was no fanfare, though we gave ourselves a well-deserved pat on the back.
With a little time to spare and a decent break in the clouds we decided to visit Culloden which, along with our superior World Cup record, is one of the many things for which the Scots won’t forgive the English. We struck lucky and arrived just in time to join an excellent short tour led by our guide, Raymond, who not only had all the facts of the 1746 battle at his fingertips but even managed at one stage to get his audience marching around the battlefield in three ranks. He explained how Bonnie Prince Charlie managed to turn a potentially winning position into a complete military disaster –the fact that as a Scot he told the story without once uttering those immortal words ‘we was robbed’ was especially impressive.
Day 6 took us from The Kyle of Tongue around Loch Ereboll, past Durness and down to Scourie. The scenery in this far corner of North West Sutherland is impressive, not least for the feeling of emptiness it imparts to those passing through. If you’re turned-on by wide open spaces with nothing but moorland, water and mountains then forget New Zealand and save yourself the airfare to the southern hemisphere. Ask yourself why(apart from the fact he’s a Kiwi) did Peter Jackson decide to go all that way to film The Lord of the Rings when he had everything he needed on the doorstep? The scenery’s perfect and Gaelic even sounds like a cross between Elvish and Orkish.
The caves at Smoo (yes, really) were a worthwhile stop. A narrow and deep rocky inlet leads into a series of massive caves that have apparently seen human habitation for thousands of years – including use by marauding Vikings (I’m not sure why, but Vikings somehow just have to be described as ‘marauding’ –whoever heard of ‘visiting’ Vikings?).
A short evening stroll from the campsite at Scourie up to the overlooking headland took us past the local cemetery which we noticed contains a single military war grave of a young sailor who died on 26th December 1939. Presumably he was lost from a passing Royal Navy warship and buried where he came ashore. Over the years we’ve visited a good many Commonwealth War Grave Commission cemeteries, all of which have been kept in wonderful condition. This particular gravestone, however, was badly worn to the point where it was almost undecipherable and the grave was obviously untended and rather sad. A snottagram to the CWGC will follow shortly.
From Scourie we took the ‘B’ road that skirts Eddrachillis Bay through Drumbeg before re-joining the main road just short of Lochinver. The twenty-five mile detour took about two hours with much of the journey done in first or second gear with Denise clenching her buttocks or stretching for the brake pedal every time we went over a blind rise or down a steep slope; given that I was driving neither action had much effect on our progress but was probably excellent exercise.
The drive from Lochinver down to Ullapool was pleasant but uneventful, though we stopped briefly to visit another scenic ruin at Ardvreck Castle, tutting under our breath at those who seemed unable to understand the signs which implored visitors not to clamber on the fragile ruins. Ullapool itself is a nice little fishing port which also acts as the terminal for the ferry to Stornaway. After a short cycle ride we enjoyed a fish and chip supper whilst chatting to a couple who entertained us with hair-raising tales about the minor road that we’d planned to take to Applecross the next day. We’ll have to see whether Denise’s buttocks will allow us to take that particular route.
Blogging is like Pringles – once you pop, you just can’t stop. Or, at least, if you do stop you leave a story uncompleted, and that would never do. That said, you do have to have the ‘muse’ with you (whatever a muse may be) if you’re going to produce something worth reading, and my muse seems to have been AWOL for the past couple of days. The scenery has been fantastic, the roads empty the company wonderful (of course) and the whole experience enjoyable – just no muse. No matter, plenty of time to catch up, so long as we’re spared.
We made the right call by deciding to tackle the journey in an anti-clockwise direction. Against all expectations the leg from Loch Ness up the east coast was more interesting and varied than we’d expected. We suspect that those who tackle NC500 the other way around are probably knackered or bored by the time they reach John O’Groats and therefore miss out on much that the north east corner has to offer – simply because they want or need to get home in a hurry. Their loss, our gain.
After stopping for lunch at Tain we spent the night at ‘the campsite that time forgot’ just north of Lairg. Run by the lovely and unshaven Mrs Ross it would probably be best described as ‘basic’. We shared the site with a caravan, one other camper van and a minibus load of young Frenchmen who looked to be totally unprepared for a night under canvas. In the true spirit of European unity we ignored them and enjoyed the wild and beautiful scenery of Loch Shin. Our journey up the east coast the next day was lovely. The sun shone and the sea sparkled. We spent Night 4 at a nice little campsite in Wick. The Victorian town centre was just a short walk away but had nothing to offer – or, at least, nothing that we wanted. Supermarkets on the edge of town have killed off any small businesses that might have otherwise given the place some character and the resulting vacuum has been filled by takeaways and not much else.
The countryside changes as you leave Wick heading north to John O’Groats. The landscape becomes suddenly featureless and grey – no hills, no trees and the houses seemed to be ‘poorer’ than those we’d passed just a few miles earlier. John O’Groats itself is OK, but if it wasn’t the most northerly town (!) in the UK it wouldn’t have much to recommend it. Nearby Duncansby Head on the other hand provided a pleasant walk along the clifftops and great views of the Orkneys and of Muckle Stack and its companions. The drive along the A836 across the ‘top of Scotland’ to our next overnight stop at Tongue was pleasant and uneventful; once we were past Thurso the countryside once again became interesting and decidedly less grey – helped no doubt by the sun making a welcome appearance and some lovely, deserted beaches and stunning mountain views. Night 5 was spent in the car park of The Tongue Hotel. As this just happened to be our Ruby Wedding Anniversary (Denise was a child bride) we treated ourselves to a fine meal in the hotel’s very comfortable surroundings, having first enjoyed a testing little walk up to Varrich Castle which may very well be the smallest castle with the best views in this part of Scotland.
Decisions, decisions! Everything we’ve read about the North Coast 500 (NC500) tells us that the accepted practice is to tackle the route in a clockwise direction. Why is that? Are the views better in one direction than the other? Are some of the roads ‘one-way’? Now, we don’t want to be awkward, but the forecast for the next week is for the weather on the East coast to be better than on the West …. so we just wondered ….. if we go around in the other direction will we upset the applecart , get drummed out of the Brownies or just piss off the locals? As tonight finds us just to the south west of Inverness it will be ‘decision day’ tomorrow. Such excitement; far more than one man can bear.
Today was mainly damp, or dreech as its known around here. Not that we were much bothered by a bit of rain, but it did rather obscure the views as we made our way up from Glasgow, past Loch Lomond, through Glen Coe and around the foot of Ben Nevis before heading up the Great Glen and along the banks of Loch Ness to our overnight stop here at Lewiston just short of Drumnadrochit. Fortunately the weather eased off as we arrived, just in time for a short walk down to the Loch with views over Castle Urquhart and a stroll to the local for a pint of that well known Scottish brew – cider. Are we cosmopolitan or what?
Veronica Ann, Erin Beth, Anya Rose, Kathryn Jane and Angela Vera. Isn’t it strange how Eddie Stobart’s lorries always seem to have such posh names? Not that I’m complaining of course – after all it makes a pleasant change from Scania, Volvo, Bedford (showing my age there I think) and the like. Anyway, we passed these particular beauties en-route from home to Scotland earlier today – perhaps now that we’re north of the border we’ll encounter Morag, Fiona and Janet plying their way around the highways and byways of Scotland? Whilst I’m on the subject of Mr Stobart’s fleet I do think it a bit of a retrograde step for him to allow his drivers to ‘dress down’ by shedding their ties. Not that it makes them any less capable as drivers of course…….. but standards, Eddie, standards!
Our first stop (not counting obligatory pee stops every two hours on the motorway) is at Hoddom Castle a few miles from the wonderfully named Ecclefechan, just north of the border. The castle itself has undoubtedly seen better days but still makes an imposing ruin and a good focus for the campsite – which I’m happy to say is pleasantly empty. For once the English can’t be blamed for knocking the place about from time to time over the past 600 years – the Scots seem to have managed that all on their own. What, Scotsmen looking for a fight? Who’d have thought it! A short walk up a nearby hill to the aptly named Repentance Tower (if it had been any steeper I’m sure I’d have been meeting my maker) was rewarded by great 360 degree views over some wonderful countryside in the evening sunlight.
….holiday blogs, motoring obsessions and an occasional account of goings-on in the Ewbank household