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 Elphin, 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, Elphin, 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|
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.
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.
|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|
*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|
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|