"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Northwest Scotland

Nope, no whisky distilleries up in this remote part of the world but a whole lot of stunning scenery and some amazing roads to drive on, so please indulge me while I narrate my journey from Skye to Orkney.  The journey took place over two days with an overnight hostel stop and a stark contrast in the weather between the days.

Barnard twice broke his journey around Scotland, first returning south after visiting Ben Nevis Distillery and then again after that winter trip to visit Nevis.  The following spring/summer he travelled by train from London to Thurso to catch the ferry to Orkney from there.  That trip had been his original intention for the commencement of his whole journey the previous summer but he was scuppered by the weather and began in Glasgow instead.

Whiten Head on the far north coast by Durness
I decided to drive round the top of Scotland from Skye as I had never been on those roads before and I was keen to see Torridon, Sutherland and the Flow Country.  I had heard much about these places before - the sea lochs, precipitous cliffs, striking isolated mountains and a peaty wilderness all demanding to be explored, the ever changing light in the north producing different colours as four seasons pass by you in one day.

Even with the 330 mile journey split over two days I still found myself pushed for time, my frequent stops as the landscape unfolded eating into the limited hours of light on these short winter days.  I once stopped three times in the space of a mile as different perspectives of the same landscape presented themselves.  Thankfully my car didn’t grumble about these stops and starts and coped admirably for the whole journey that week.

Sadly, I awoke on the first day of travel to a dreich morning of particularly Scottish proportions and my first two objectives were immediately affected.  Any chance of a great photo of the Skye Bridge with the Cuillin in the background was lost in a wet misty scene of gloom as I returned to the mainland.  My next wish was to drive over the Baelach na Ba, the Pass of the Cattle, to Applecross and appreciated the views from there at the end of one of the most spectacular driving roads anywhere in the world.  Not to be!

As you turn off the main road towards the Bealach na Ba there is a warning sign which is the driving equivalent of “One does not simply walk into Mordor”.  The highest point of the road through the pass is 2,053 feet after a climb from sea level that sometimes hits a gradient of 1:5 as you cling to the side of the hill on hairpin bends.  Hard going on a good day; treacherous and often closed in winter.  Let me at it!  Not for the fainthearted or foolhardy but very rewarding for a more experienced driver.  On a good day.  I will return.

'Viewpoint' at top of Bealach na Ba
This was the view out of my window at the top of the pass where visibility was often down to 20 yards or so.  There was no point in continuing down to Applecross as the views across to Skye would be non existent and I would just have to drive all the way back up in the mist, so I returned to shore and headed on to Torridon.  As luck would have it the weather lifted as I drove on, and the wonderful road to the village of Lower Diabaig almost made up for my earlier disappointment (thanks for the tip Josh, well worth the detour).

Road from Torridon to Lower Diabaig
From there the drive through Torridon and round Wester Ross was spoiled only by the cloud covered hills and I arrived at my bed for the night just a little disappointed.  However, a warm welcome and comfortable night at the Sail Mhor Croft Hostel helped to lift my spirits and prepare me for day two.  The hostel is at Camusnagaul near Dundonnell and is a great place for those wishing to get away from the city and stay beside a loch in the middle of some stunning mountainous country.

An Teallach in Wester Ross
Day two was glorious.  The clouds had mostly gone and although each mountain top was still capped, beyond them the sky was azure.  Even the chill wind of the previous day had gone and I set off for Ullapool as early as I could in case the driechness was lurking somewhere nearby, waiting for the faint click of a camera shutter to beckon it forth.  I was so keen to get moving I almost missed this picture of one of my favourite mountains, An Teallach, which suddenly appeared in my rear view mirror.

Strath More looking towards Loch Broom
After viewing those bleak and dramatic ridges I next found a peaceful valley at the top of Strath More looking down towards Loch Broom in the direction my adventure was taking me.  From there you pass through Ullapool and turn inland through the Coigach where weathered sandstone peaks stand apart in an alien landscape that Bill Watterson might well have drawn for the mischievous Calvin and Hobbes to enjoy.  Stac Pollaidh is perhaps the most celebrated of these, its rugged peak sticking out from the barren wilderness around it.  Although not a Munro this is one of those hills that climbers like to include on their list of ascents.

The Coigach landscape - Ben More Coigach on left, Stac Pollaidh on right

Stac Pollaidh
Next we pass over the curving sweep of the Kylesku Bridge, as graceful a mass of concrete as you can find, and on to Durness near the northwest tip of Scotland.  The road beyond Laxford Bridge is mostly single track but it is a good surface and an absolute pleasure to drive; I don’t remember seeing another car for the last 20 miles of that stage.  To be honest, much of the scenery is beginning to merge by this point and I am glad to arrive at Durness and enjoy the cliffs, beaches, rolling surf and endless sea.

One of the most important scenes in Highland Geology - Glencoul Thrust Plane on the left, Moine Thrust in the distance

Brooding mass of Sàil Gharbh near Kylesku
One of the highlights of Durness is Smoo Cave which sits at the end of a sea gorge and has a waterfall plunging down inside it.  The river was in full spate when I was there and the mist from the falls met me as I entered the cave, one brief photo was all I could muster before my lens was awash.  When the river is quieter you can take a journey under the waterfall to an inner cave and see the full power of the river that eroded the gorge over the eons.

Smoo Gorge at Durness

Smoo Cave waterfall
A couple of miles on from Durness you come to the ruins of the old Ceannabeinne Township, where a crofting community once farmed the slopes above the shore.  The story of the Highland Clearances is told on signs here, the community evicted at 48 hours notice in 1841 during one of the darkest periods in Scottish History.  Walking around the foundations of their homes you can feel the past rushing up to meet you.  The people who lived here had already been moved from more fertile inland regions to make way for sheep grazing and were eking out a marginal existence from these sandy soils, yet they still resisted their oppressors for over a year.

Ceannebeinne Bay
Continuing on through the ruins to the beautiful shoreline you suddenly find a coastal scene that may have helped the crofters find joy and respite from their hard existence; today silent but for the rumbling surf, the laughter and songs of a community washed away on the tide of change that will one day erase all of the coast here.  The beaches here have golden sand and some of the most vivid and intriguing geology anywhere in Scotland.  Those crofters were evicted at a time when the antiquity of the Earth was only beginning to dawn on the scholars of that age; the layers, folds and intrusions of rocks here a colourful enigma rather than a calendar of the cosmos.

Vivid geology at the Secret Beach

Inner shore erosion by river at Secret Beach
I could have sat there for hours but for a ferry to catch, and so I dragged myself away from my musings and proceeded on to Tongue for a quick coffee and a photo of Ben Loyal before the final stage along the coast.  My final stop was at Dounreay, Scotland’s first nuclear reactor, where the sky glowed pink from the setting sun rather from than anything with a significant half-life, I hope.  From there it was a short journey to the pier at Scrabster by Thurso and an onward voyage to Orkney.  Please join me there as my distillery reporting resumes with a visit to Highland Park.

The gnarley cliffs of Ben Loyal

Dounreay at sunset