Sunday, 10 July 2016

IT'S A HARD LIFE IN THE HIGHLANDS- North Western Scotland


continued..........
We knew there was a pub in Kylesku, a tiny cluster of houses at the end of our long walk out from the Glen Dhu bothy, and we’d decided in advance to splurge and treat ourselves to a pint and a pub meal. Exhausted and wet on arrival, we found the quaint old pub had been changed into a posh “foodie” type place, where we couldn’t afford the meals, obviously aimed at rich tourists. We were very pissed off and disappointed. None of the old pubs we/Rich remembered were the same, with the extravagant tourist food being more important than atmosphere. Of course, it’s understandable the owners want to make more money than they can from the locals nursing their pints, but we were saddened at the change. Anyway, we sat on the only two bar stools in what was now really a restaurant and had an exorbitantly priced couple of drinks. The alcohol lifted our spirits a great deal, which was just as well, as the cold rainy weather had set in and we had a wet wait for our next lift to Lochinver.

After finding the old Fisherman’s Mission in Lochinver turned into a fancy bunkhouse (loads of theses around Scotland now, aimed at the hiker who wants a bit of luxury, and about 25 pounds per person), we finally got our reasonably priced beer and pub meal in the still daggy around the edges Culag Hotel. We scoffed the sausages, vegies, Yorkshire pudding and gravy, and lingered as long as we could before retiring to our wet, cold and midge surrounded camp in the forest on the surrounds of the town, and snuggling in our warm tent. 

We changed our plans of visiting another bothy nearby, and decided to evacuate to Achiltibuie, where we knew we had a dry caravan and soft bed for a few nights at our good friend, Ron’s. A dry, but cold day saw us getting a series of lifts to the village, and after a cleanup, some food and a “wee dram” (otherwise known as two bottles of whisky between three people), we felt 100 percent better. Richard and Ron used to fish lobster together in the good old days, and there was MUCH reminiscing, and the memories came flowing. Both seemed to agree that things aren’t the same anymore, and nothing will ever be as grand as those fishing days! 


More lovely weather arrived, and we made the most of it for several walks around the village (Achiltibuie is actually a series of clusters of houses threaded along the small coastal road). Those who know us, know what a soft spot Rich has for this place, having lived here for 15 years. Although it had of course changed in the 20 years since he’s been here, he was very happy to catch up with random people on the street and in the pub, and hear lots of gossip about what has been going on. There are a lot of new faces and houses, including many holiday cottages, unfortunately, but mostly the village had retained its charming character. 


Relics of the past, Achiltibuie, Scotland


The best day was spent walking the circuit around the peninsula to the end of the village (Cullnacraig) and back along the coast. Sal had forgotten how beautiful it was here- travelling down the coast through other places just brought that home. On our last day, something twinged in Rich’s body, and his already not great back problem seemed to disintegrate into something worse.


Looking out over Achiltibuie, Scotland

Dramatic sky, Achiltibuie, Scotland

Interesting rock formations, Achiltibuie, Scotland


We powered on (looking back, maybe not the best idea), and the morning we left, walked many miles due to non existed traffic coming out of Altandhu (where we were staying). Eventually we were picked up by a new local resident of Achiltibuie, who offered Rich work in her hostel if we ever felt like it!

We’d seen Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt from a car on a previous lift, and felt the need to return and camp here the night by a stream trickling into the loch. Despite the midges, it was the most magical place after all the tourists had left, and we shared the castle that night with a herd of beautiful deer with huge antlers, and a bright full moon. We followed up the next night with a very pleasant and quiet night on Loch Cam near Elgin, with a view to the spectacular Suilven mountain, birdsong and trout jumping madly out of the water.

Beautiful deer at Adrvreck Castle, Scotland

Natural art, Ardvreck Castle, Scotland

View of the castle, Ardvreck, Scotland

The stillness of Loch Cam, Elgin, Scotland


On our wet arrival in Ullapool, we took advantage of the “big town” facilities- found the first public computer we’d seen in weeks (everyone has a smart phone now, even in Scotland!), shopped at Tescos, used the ATM, and checked into the campsite there for a couple of days- the town is really too big for wild camping. It was our first full day of rain, but we felt lucky the whole trip hadn’t been like it! Eventually we moved to Rich’s son’s house, and had such a lovely few days with his family getting to know the little ones, playing games, walking by the cool river in town, being well fed with yummy hot meals, and just hanging out.


Ullapool harbour at 10pm! Ullapool, Scotland
Chain, Ullapool pier, Scotland

Full Scottish breakfast including Black pudding and a tattie scone!

Unique crisp flavour!

It was in Ullapool we heard the astonishing news that Britain had voted out in the Brexit referendum. Rich, being a long time opponent of Britain being in the EU, was ecstatic, unlike most of the Scots we met, most of whom had voted to remain.

We now had a decision to make- to proceed out to the Western Isles, as we had planned, or abandon ship, so to speak, and head back to England. After much deliberation we decided to go for it, stocked up on Ibuprofen, and left on the very impressively swish and huge ferry from Ullapool to Stornaway on Lewis.

To be honest, it wasn’t a great week. The highlight was seeing (and staying at) the Callanish Stones- something Rich has wanted to do for many years, but the terrible relentless windy, wet and cold weather, combined with very few lifts, a bleak landscape, and Rich’s pain getting worse, it wasn’t much fun.


Stone alter at the Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

The Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

In pain! At the Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland


Night time at the Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

 There really are ancient buildings EVERYWHERE on Lewis, and we found the old blackhouse villages quite interesting. Up until the 1950s and 1960s, people lived here with their animals, and a peat fire inside (hence the black colour in the house), smoking the food hanging up from the roof. They moved to other slightly more rural nearby locations in the summer to rest the pasture around their homes. The visitor’s centre had some cool old pictures of the old men with huge beards and pipes and lassies with long skirts and headscarves harvesting peat. 
*Peat is where the layers of trees and vegetation have been compacted down into the ground over thousands of years. It can be cut out of the ground in brick shapes, dried and used for heating. It produces a distinctive and pleasant smell when burnt.*


Renovated blackhouse, Lewis, Scotland

National flower of Scotland, Lewis, Scotland


A friendly couple, Mo and Bonk, on seeing us cowering behind a wall outside in the rain, sheltered us in their house, gave us a large dram to warm up, and drove us to nearby Shawbost beach to camp for the night. It was a pleasant spot, but we were peltered by the rain and gale force winds that night. We were very impressed with our little tent- it might have been small and cozy, but it held up extremely well in the rain and wind, and somehow seem to feel bigger the more we slept in it!

The broch at Carloway was an interesting sight, apparently one of the best preserved brochs (circular stone towers) in the Western Isles. Despite the shite weather, we could imagine the old days (100BC) when people lived in the dark inside the nine meter tall double walls, protected from the elements and invaders, with levels of wood platforms creating rooms and stone stairways (some still intact).


Carloway Broch, Lewis, Scotland
 
Hardy Highland sheep, Lewis, Scotland

The Callanish Stones group was the best thing we saw on Lewis. There really is something magical about the 5000 year old standing stones. When we arrived, there was a gale blowing, and we thought “Bugger it”, and set up our tent right on the edge of the car park next to the visitor’s centre. We stayed for a few nights and no one seemed to mind! We took every opportunity when the rain stopped (not very often), and the busloads of tourists left for the evening to quietly view the stones in the changing light. We were even lucky enough to see a rainbow one evening whilst hanging out there. There are two other smaller sites across a boggy patch of land, these less visited and smaller, but also atmospheric.


A smaller site near the Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

The Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

Evening light, The Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

The Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

Patterns in the ancient rock, The Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

Lucky to see a rainbow, The Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

Evening sun, The Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland
 
The beauty of the Callanish Stones, Lewis, Scotland

Lewis is famously home to the “Wee” Free Church of Scotland, a harsh and strict form of the Presbyterian faith. Although not as influential and widespread anymore, we still heard stories about mad ministers lecturing people for cooking, gardening, washing clothes, or pretty much anything it seems, on a Sunday. In the old days, they used to even chain up the swings in the kid’s playgrounds on the holy day. Nowadays, the ferry runs on a Sunday, and there are even some pubs open.

We didn’t realise that Gaelic was so widely spoken on Lewis. Most signs and announcements are in Gaelic and English, and we overheard many people speaking a sort of hybrid of the two languages. Apparently 60% of islanders speak Gaelic as a first language!


Street sign, Stornaway, Lewis, Scotland


But in general, we were quite unimpressed with the scenery on Lewis. Unlike the beautiful and dramatic west coast of Scotland, there are no mountains and the desolate, bare and weather beaten landscape did nothing for us. The houses were ugly- none of the gleaming white cottages from the west coast- people here seemed to prefer to leave their homes grey and austere. Obviously, it didn’t help that weather was terrible, and that we were both quite grumpy! The tourists were annoying us, and we couldn’t believe the amount of people wearing designer trekking gear- can’t people just throw on a charity shop jumper- it’s not bloody Everest!!


Putting on a brave face, last night in Lewis, Scotland


It seemed the end had come -things were getting to us, and we weren’t enjoying ourselves anymore. We decided on another quick visit to see Rich’s son and daughter in Ullapool and Strichen respectively (sleeping on a soft bed seemed unbelievably luxuriant!), before heading back to Cambridge to see doctors and sort out Rich’s pain. It seemed our departure was timely, as the weather forecast told of more awful weather in the north west of the country. Although the last week was a bit miserable, we had such a fantastic trip for the first three weeks, and it was a great learning experience. We now know what our bodies are capable of, and maybe some of us can’t do what we did 30 or 40 years ago!!! That’s life!!

General notes about moving around Scotland

Generally, hitch hiking in Scotland was easy, fun and we met some amazingly generous and friendly people. There was the opinionated RAF gentleman; the odd redhead in a business suit who had no plans and took us where we were heading just for the drive; the car crash recovery truck driver; the nice family man from Inverness desperate to move to Australia; the Nova Scotians in Scotland for a holiday at a castle; the parcel delivery man who drove the entire north of Scotland every day and knew everyone’s names in all the houses; the tower repair man who saw us twice on the road and gave us lifts; an incomprehensible man from Carlisle exploring his own country in his holidays from work; the Yellow pages delivery man; the posh couple in a white leather seated Volvo (couldn’t believe that one!); the sausage delivery man for the highlands, the two smart ladies who'd arranged their ride through a Lochinver Facebook page but squeezed us in too; the man who lived many years in Mumbai and whose wife lived in Iran for 15 years; and best of all- the oil rig worker on his way home after 3 weeks off shore, who brought us into his house for a cup of tea before we headed off!

We did take the odd bus here and there, but north Scotland is too sparsely populated to have many useful bus routes. When there is one it’s very often just a couple of times a day, especially in the highlands.

It was amazing to be able to walk and camp pretty much anywhere we wanted- Scotland is a unique place for that. So many places are wild and without people, it was quite easy to pitch up without seeing anyone at all, and when there were other walkers or campers around, everyone was respectful of the nature and each other.


A scenic camping spot at Scourie, Scotland

First campsite just outside of Tongue, Scotland

The best spot- next to Ardvreck Castle, Scotland

Sal hitching on gorse lined road, Scotland


THE WEE BOTHYS- Aberdeenshire, North and West Scotland


After so many towns and cities recently, we were both dying to get out to the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands, and be free from bookings, hotels, public transport, traffic, internet and people for a while.

We noticed Megabus had a promotion on their new sleeper bus between London and Aberdeen, so in the spirit of trying something new, we decided to give it a go. It certainly wasn’t the most comfortable night, with the lower bunks we had chosen being a bit restrictive, but we agreed for the price it had been worth a shot. The one hour trip from Aberdeen bus station to the village of Strichen in Aberdeenshire (where Richard’s daughter, Kim lives) was gently scenic with rolling green hills, farmland with new lambs and calves, and splashes of yellow from the rapeseed fields, gorse and broom. We weren’t so keen on the grim and dark granite buildings in all the towns in this area, but the absolutely brilliant warm and sunny weather somehow softened the severity of them.

We spent a lovely couple of days around Strichen with the unexpectedly great weather continuing (as it did for our next two weeks!). Highlights included :
Warming up for further walking adventures, with a long walk along a disused railway line from Fraserburgh, complete with old platforms, wild gooseberries, raspberries, apples, fuchsias, pansies and roses, scotch pines, birds fluttering and twittering in the hedgerows, and the coconut like smell of the flowering gorse sweet on the breeze.
A visit to the wonderful old farm house and garden of a relative, and the spectacle of a bluebell grove in full flower, along with rhododendrons, beech and elms.
A drive to visit the Bullers of Buchan, a coastal area with cliffs housing thousands of marine birds, including guillemots, cormorants, gulls and the first glimpse of a puffin, and Slaines Castle, an abandoned and atmospheric ruin rumoured to have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula, sitting unprotected and unloved by the dramatic coast line.
The walk around the somewhat rundown town and port of Peterhead, a once thriving fishing harbour, now with an air of neglect and poverty.
Catching up with many years worth of news, and reminiscing with some old memories.


Glorious sunshine through the tree tops, Strichen, Scotland

Bluebell grove in flower, Strichen, Scotland

Beautiful garden with bluebells, Strichen, Scotland
Along the cliffs, Bullers of Buchan, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

So happy to see a puffin! Bullers of Buchan, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Wildflowers, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Start of Fraserbugh walk, Aberdeenshire, Scotland


We were surprised to hear about the local language called Doric, which is common in Aberdeenshire, and includes phrases such as “fit like min” (How are you?), “abdy” (everybody), “loon” (boy) and “bap” (roll).

The adventure started when we left the east of Scotland to hitch hike to the north. We had a map and a vague route planned, but when we reached Lairg, a village we thought might take us a couple of days to get to in four hours, we thought we’d better slow down a bit! Taking advantage of the light evenings (the sun never really goes down in summer in Scotland, it just gets a bit darker between about 11pm and 3am), we walked and waited a bit longer for a lift at the beginning of the tiny quiet road to Tongue, but there was too little traffic (as in none!). We’d seen a sign for a bird hide nearby, so after a walk in to Loch Shin, we found the small wooden building, chatted with the last twitchers of the evening and settled in for the night.


Spent a comfortable night in a bird hide, Lairg, Scotland



The scenery up to the north coast continued to become more beautiful, with many stone walls, lochs and hill sides with interesting breeds of sheep, and as we turned west, the spectacular highland scenery began with bigger, bare mountains, and not so many trees . It was in Tongue we leant about the “North Coast 500”- the coastal road that winds its way from Inverness and around to Ullapool, and has recently been promoted by the Highland Council as one of the most scenic drives in the world. Although this road has always been there, because of this clever marketing, it has now become incredibly popular for caravans, huge motorhomes, motorbikes, push bikes and classic car fanatics. It means the road is much busier, and the character has changed a lot. The woman in the tourist information in Ullapool told us how busy the area was as a consequence- even at the very beginning of the season tourists were arriving and finding everywhere in town fully booked.



The gorgeous road between Lairg and Tongue, Scotland



Leaving our bags after a chat with delightful local artist Mark Edwards, we spent the afternoon walking around in the glorious sunshine, exploring the castle and the stunning views, and enjoying a drink at the pub. 


Enjoying the heat! Tongue, Scotland


Tongue junction, Scotland


That night we encountered the first of the dreaded midges. We’d hoped we would be too early for the horrible little flying, bitey bugs, but because of the warm weather the previous few weeks, they were out in early force. We managed to get out tent up and down again in the morning with minimal damage to our skins, but Sal discovered an unfortunate allergy to the bites, and had to take antihistamines for the rest of the trip to balance the swelling and itching. The supposed repellent product Skin So Soft that someone gave us, caused a blistery rash over Sal’s face, and was actually worse than the bites in the end!

We were excited to embark on the next part of the trip, and visit Sal’s first bothy. A bothy is a small cottage, usually on a large estate, and once used for stalking, sheparding or fishing. The Mountain Bothies Association (which Rich belonged to in the 1970’s) has had permission from some land owners over the years to turn some of these old decrepit buildings into shelters for walkers. Because of their original purpose many of the converted bothies are in remote and wild places. And best of all, they’re free!

In Scotland, there is a law that allows hill walkers to pretty much have access to any wild land, and the cooperation involved between landowners and hill walkers is refreshing- it’s mutually beneficial for them both. 

The first one we visited was Strabeg- a relatively short, but gorgeous walk up the glen from the main road (the turn off was in the middle of nowhere), and when we arrived we found it empty and tidy. We set up our beds in a room upstairs, and rested on the grass outside in the warm.





Walking to Strabeg bothy, Scotland

Stunning location of Strabeg bothy


The bothy had  three big rooms, and a sitting room with a fire, and after collecting some firewood, and having a bit of a wash in the picturesque stream, we enjoyed chatting with a couple of other guests who arrived later in the day (mostly doing long distance walks), cooked some dinner on the fire, and slept soundly.


Collecting firewood, Strabeg, Scotland

A well need wash, Strabeg, Scotland

Relaxing in the bothy, Strabeg, Scotland
Strabeg bothy, Scotland


The bothy had a stunning setting, and when all the others had left, for the next two days we had the whole area to ourselves to walk and admire different views -from under the boggy and moody crags to the top of the smooth barren hills. There wasn’t a great deal of plant life on show here (apart from the small area of birch woods on the crags), mainly heather, the occasional windblown juniper, tiny tough wildflowers in cracks and rocks with psychedelic coloured moss. It was fun walking up and down the hill collecting lots of water from the stream to fill bottles and buckets, and collecting more firewood- really loved it. The glen held many sheep, and we found ticks a bit of a problem, with about six between us.


Making a cairn, Strabeg, Scotland

Lovely views from the bothy, Strabeg, Scotland

Washing area, Strabeg, Scotland

Cute bothy building, Strabeg, Scotland

View of the bothy from a nearby hill, Strabeg, Scotland



Rich was quiet shocked at how much the bothy system has changed. Having visited and worked on dozens of bothies in the past, in his day the existence and locations were all a bit secretive. But now, with the internet, new long distance walks, and several TV programs about the bothies, there are many more visitors- one couple even had a smart phone complete with Bothy App!! Rich was not amused!



Thinking about the old days, Strabeg, Scotland



Once we packed up and found our way back to the main road (Rich proved his talent for finding the way where there were no paths!), we had a long wait till the next lift. We found ourselves amusing ourselves by jumping around doing exercises, high kicks and ballet (well, Sal did......). The weather stayed warm, if not always sunny, and we were happy to wait, or sometimes, just start walking until a car came. 

On arrival in Durness, a place that should have been charming and beautiful, we were immediately put off by the HUGE numbers of enormous caravan and motorhomes, tour buses, B and Bs and tourists. Even the white sand beaches and the first of the white cottages typical of the west coast  we had seen, couldn’t keep us in town, and we got a lift through glorious mountain scenery to Scourie, on the west coast, where the landscape seemed even greener.

Rich had remembered a great little pub there from years ago, but when arrived, we could only find a hugely posh and expensive hotel aimed at the “500ers”. We felt a little down because of the tourism, and being tired, but we convinced each to keep walking to a beautiful coastal area out of town, where we found a spectacular camping spot on the cliffs overlooking ocean and islands. We were extremely exhausted from all the walking over the past few days, and after a picnic looking out at seals, the midges came out in the early evening, and we decided that was a very good time to retire and sleep in our lovely warm little tent. We talked a bit about perhaps moving down to England to walk to avoid the horrible midges.



A Highland coo, Scourie, Scotland

Looking for a campsite, Scourie, Scotland



Luckily we woke to bright sun and strong wind (midge removing weather), and headed to our second, very different, bothy at Kylestrome/Glen Dhu. The path in was long (for us), but well maintained and used by the wealthy estate. If it was possible to enjoy a walk more than Strathbeg, this was it. We saw the first purple flowers on the heather here, fox gloves and many other wildflowers.
 
We were quite exhausted on arrival, but the grand beauty of the loch and the walk up the glen, totally revived us and we were so happy. After not being able to lift her backpack off the bed in Cambridge, to carrying it for 10 miles or more by the end of the month, Sal felt quite proud of herself!



Long walk into Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

Nearly there, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland



Again, this bothy was empty when we arrived, so we tidied up a bit and made a little home there for a few days. This bothy had very little firewood nearby, so we scoured the loch side and brought a big bag back, so we could make a cup of tea and enjoy a small fire at night. We took a rest day, and although not sunny, we really needed the break from walking or carrying our packs. A few walkers came through (all doing the same Fort William to Cape Wrath trek), including the 80+ year old hill running Suzie, posh and quiet Nik with his 5.50 pound chicken korma in a bag, and a couple of mad retired middle aged cyclists, ticking off highland spots every weekend, and we enjoyed the brief company. The weather turned a bit cooler, with rain and gale force winds nearly blowing the bothy roof off on our last night
To be continued..........................


Rustic charm, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

Our room for a few days, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

What a location! Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

Watching the weather, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland

Appreciating the warmth, Glen Dhu bothy, Scotland