The ultimate Scotland Experience
Even though our Scotland Bucket List is getting shorter, we still haven't seen quite a few things on our ultimate Scotland experience tour. At the top of our list is some wildlife viewing, which is most likely to be done on the quieter islands. And then, of course, whisky tasting. In this regard, we picked a few of the exquisite and lesser known distilleries because we don't like the mass-produced stuff that much. But whenever we have to book something in advance, we have a hard time doing so. Our freedom to decide in the morning when and where to go is worth a lot to us. This is true for ferries as well as a whisky tasting. Thus, we stick to it, if it fits, then it fits, otherwise we just let it be.
Our next destination is the Isle of Skye, described by many Scottish travelers as a highlight. It is probably one of the few that can be reached without a ferry, but only via a bridge. Until then, however, we need several days at our rate of travel.
From Oldmoreshore Beach, we continue via Badcall (what a name;-) and the Kylesku Bridge to Newton, where we say goodbye to the NC500 once again for an additional loop and drive on the single track road out to Loch Nedd. If we thought until now that the midges are not worth mentioning, we change our mind from here on. The bugs are annoying and keep us from having an aperitif outside in front of the car. Cold and wind do not exactly fit Brigitte's idea of a warm summer vacation. If there is neither cold nor wind, then you can be sure that the midges are spreading. This sounds like complaining on a high level, but without the midges, the cold and the wind we would be really close to paradise.
Along Loch Nedd and up to Lochinver we go steadily up and down. We have now arrived in the heart of Scotland, so to speak. And as so often, the unexpected happens. At a beautiful little edge, enthroned above the Maiden Loch, we spy a perfect niche, a little bit off our track. We are still far away from our destination for the day, the harbor town of Ullapool, but we just can't miss such a place. Whack, bivouac!
above: our location for the night at Maiden Loch
below: Looking west to the unstable weather
Now the days are gradually becoming alike. It's about time that we finally get to the long-awaited island. In Ullapool, however, we finally bury the thought of the Outer Hebrides. The weather is just mediocre at the moment and the waiting time of several days is simply too long. We continue directly via Loch Maree to the Isle of Skye and thus to our first whisky distillery, the Torabhaig.
above & below: Loch Maree
As if on cue, the clouds disappear just after crossing the arch-like Skye Bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh to the Isle of Skye. We head towards the sun and without any advance notice we hope to get two tickets for the distillery tour and whisky tastings. Lo and behold, it works. We are on the next tour at 4 pm. That suits us perfectly. We spend the waiting time walking around the very well kept distillery grounds. The hour-long tour is extremely interesting and actually manages to get us wine and beer drinkers interested in stronger stuff, too. Torabhaig (pronounced Toravaig) is a very young, select spirit and makes an excellent peated single malt. The production on the island also makes it a bit more special. Of course, we forego the tasting for the time being and just smell the swill. After all, if you drive FRAME, you don't drink. We say goodbye not without a liter of souvenir and a few whiskey cakes for those at home. After fifteen kilometers of single track driving to the other side of the island, the tasting is made up for, with a view of the sea and an almost kitschy sunset.
We are here not far from the Dunscaith Castle ruins and wait for a nice weather window to discover it. There's probably not much else to do in this lonely region but simply enjoy nature, history and yourself (and your whisky).
above: ...and at sunset we finally taste to the fullest
below: Dunscaith Castle ruin and time and time again the fascinating view to the sea
Besides the breathtaking landscape, the Isle of Skye has of course one or the other tourist attraction. The "Fairy Pools" or "The Old Man of Stor" are certainly among them. On this rainy day, we just drive off and decide at the last crossroads whether we really want to start the walk to the fairies. The weather does not play along today. We leave the pools on the left and continue directly north. Our intention on Skye is to drive around the island once to soak up the magnificent landscape. We drive through a jumble of fjords and lakes. Often we do not know what is what. Only zooming in on the GPS then gives clarity. The dark, heavy clouds have their own charm, but somehow it's a pity that we didn't catch a nicer weather with a bit more visibility today.
We reach Dunvegan. Here is the seat of one of the two clans of the Isle of Skye. The MacLeod clan opens its Dunvegan Castle including its gardens for the numerous tourists. We dive a little deeper into Scottish history back to the 13th century and marvel at the complex relationships between Clan MacLeod and its friendly and rival clans (namely the MacDonald of Sleat). Who would like to hear more about it, links here.
above: the dark sides of the MacLeod Clan Castle Dunvegan
below: the beautiful sides in its gardens
Shortly before Uig, the road once again turns 180° around a fjord and we narrowly escape a huge thunderstorm. A short time later it gets narrow again. Over the northern tip to the east side and down to the Skye capital to Portree there is only single track. Somewhere in between, where the view is most impressive, we stop for today. It doesn't go long either, rain number 17 sets in.
It is cozy and warm in our box and we watch the whims of nature. Then we discover something new: The local sheep stand like frozen in the rain. How could we never notice something like this before? Like white pillars of salt in the green grass, stiff and motionless. Why do they do that? Out of caution to slip in the wet terrain? No, no, rain-tested breeds - and that's what the Scottish sheep are - stand in the rain with their butts to the wind and let the water run off on their fur, which is parted over their backs. Since they have less wool on their bellies, this is the best way to protect themselves from water and cold. My God, these animals are clever. Funny it looks in any case and time for a small staring break they have probably also. The guys have nothing else to do the rest of the day anyway, but to graze peacefully.
We, on the other hand, do not profit from the rain to rest, but decide this night to escape the bad weather towards the south, because we have set ourselves a new goal. Instead of Shetland and the Outer Hebrides we have chosen the island of Mull as our island paradise. Mull not only promises to be less crowded, but offers us another attraction we've been looking for: The Scottish Highland Games. The local traditions go far beyond the highland cattle, the single malt and the haunted stories of the numerous castles. Scotland is also into sports. But the Scottish Highland Games are not about golf, billiards or darts, no it's more about classic athletics AND the bagpipes. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? Despite the wet weather we drive as far as we can towards Mull. For this we leave the Isle of Skye not over the bridge again, but via ferry from Armadale to Malaig. With this short ferry crossing we avoid driving back to the west coast rugged by Loch Alsh and Loch Duich and the elevations behind them. We get close to the coast down to Mingary Castle, where we make a short luxury hotel visit just before crossing to Mull. Oh yes, in between we try our luck to get the Glenfinnan railroad viaduct in front of the lens. We and with us probably hundreds of other tourists fail on the massively overcrowded parking to find a free place. A helpless shoulder shrug of the parking lot attendant gives us to understand that not enough for the mass rush was organized here. Without any alternative, we leave:-(
Above: Loch Ailort
below: Loch Sunart and already the sun is back again
at the bottom: Flash visit to the luxury hotel & dining temple Mingary Castle
The third ferry crossing on our tour brings us now to Tobermory, the capital of the small island of Mull, of which at least since Paul McCartney's tearjerker "Mull of Kintyre" unconsciously probably everyone has heard. The crossing to the island paradise is short, but still quite shaky. The wind has its advantages, of course. No midges and also the dark clouds are mostly gone since this morning. The colorful and therefore photogenic harbor town fascinates us right away. For now, however, we drive a little further south to undergo the laundry-washing ritual once again at a campsite.
above: Witnesses of history on the way to the campsite Pennygown in Salen
bottom: this is what it looks like when the campsite tumbler goes on strike
at the very bottom: The picturesque harbor town of Tobermory - Isle of Mull
It is early morning, sunny, fresh and Highland Game Day. We try to start our engines especially quietly today and make our way back to Tobermory shortly after seven! To get a parking space in the harbor on such a special day, you have to be on the road early. We are and we get hold of it. There is enough time for the usual second morning coffee while we watch the hustle and bustle here in the harbor area. We mainly watch the many young women and men dressed in kilt, who get into position with their bagpipes in front of the local whisky distillery. Where else is there such a thing. Women and men are dressed exactly the same from head to toe. I search, as in the "find the difference" puzzle. I don't find one.
At ten o'clock the parade starts. In front a dozen elders, presumably the lords of the island clan, followed by a military column of four dozens of bagpipers. By the way, Mull is hosting its centenary Highland Game today. So we are witnesses of a very special event ;-).
Joining the bagpipers we march all together up to the golf course where the games are played. As a golfer, of course, it hurts a bit to see how this course around the eighteenth hole has been turned into an Olympic site. However, a small hill forms a natural grandstand for the spectators, probably just the perfect place for this big event. Mull has just under 3000 inhabitants, it seems that everyone is here today. Of course there are also some tourists.
Right at the entrance there is the first "refreshment station" for all visitors. Local whisky and gin in all varieties and variations are ready for tasting. It is shortly before eleven o'clock in the morning. Well, that a cheerful start into the day.
The atmosphere is fantastic, the weather at the moment still consistent. You can imagine the games as a mixture of sports day and music competition. While the athletes race in the not quite oval oval, the strong guys throw some heavy objects into the arena center in the style of hammer throwers. High jump, long jump, triple jump and in the middle of it the dance competition to the traditional bagpipe music. From the three-year-old dancing actress to the 80-year-old long-distance runner, every age is involved. Outside the arena, bagpipers also compete in front of an individual jury while performing a certain combination of steps in slow motion. It is simply fascinating and we often don't know where to look in order not to miss anything.
Of course, the rain is not to be missed today. But those present don't seem to mind at all. They happily continue to compete, celebrate, eat and drink.
In the early evening we end up driving across the island to the west side. Somewhere in the hills south of Calgary we find a nice place with a far view right next to an Owoo. Despite the big event in Tobermory, the island really doesn't seem to be as crowded as we are used to from the Scottish west coast. We also observe that deer and hares are running cross-country and are not bothered by our presence. This is how we imagined it on the island.
Since the camping two days ago, the fresh water tank is filled again, all laundry washed and food supplies are never a problem here in Scotland anyway. So we are prepared to spend a few days in a nice place once again. At Loch Na Keal we might succeed. Full of confidence we drive there, on a single track of course. At the north side of Ben More, the biggest elevation of the island, we find it right away. We were told by Scottish campers that the rules of wild camping here on Mull are not as strict as on the mainland. So we dare to go on a rock, which is not far from the track right at the water's edge. We look at low tide on three small islands, on which the seals gather to sunbathe. Also otters and all kinds of birds of prey are occasionally seen. Every now and then Bird and Seal Watchers stop next to us to spy out our surroundings with their large telescopes.
After four days in this dreamlike place, we do what we so highly dislike to do. We book the ferries back to the mainland and the one across to Northern Ireland. Now we have appointments again, but we want to be in Ireland until the beginning of August. So, let's go!
Our FRAME seems to feel really comfortable on ferry crossings, because it always rocks its cabin happily in sync with the swell. When parking, the ferry staff has a last PW maneuver just a hand's width from our box. "That may quickly go bad with a slightly higher swell", I explain the swinging of our Unimog to the people in charge. The driver thanks me for my foresight and exchanges the last place with a smaller vehicle on the opposite side. Thus eventually all find a space on this ferry to Oban without danger for scratches or dents.
We are back on the main island, in Oban. After a week on the isle of Mull, we feel back to the hectic mainland. The advantage of this higher degree of civilization is the availability of organic food in the specialty stores of this small harbor town. For the overnight stay, however, we hit the bushes as usual. More precisely, we'll spend the night on the shores of Loch Etive at the Taynuilt jetty, half an hour northeast of the port of arrival. It's now two more days to the Ireland ferry to Cairnryan. Always heading south, we are now leaving the Highlands and arrive at the largest lake in Great Britain, Loch Lomond. Narrow roads wind along the lake. While the driver concentrates on the super challenging winding road, the co-driver enjoys the scenery of the hour. Sometimes, for fractions of seconds, it's the other way around ;-)
At the end of the loch lies Balloch Castle. It gives us the opportunity for a well-deserved break. We stroll through the gardens and woods up to the castle ruins and soon back again. It is particularly striking here how many warning and prohibition signs are directed at visitors. The same signs every 30 meters, telling you what you are allowed to do, what you are not allowed to do, and how you must behave. Thinking along seems to be no longer desired, common sense probably even forbidden. The state has completely taken over the scepter here. Where will this paternalism lead?
below: Balloch Castle and its exotic gardens
Our way finally leads us via Erskine Bridge over the Clyde, past Glasgow. We would hardly have noticed it, but we are spending the night right next to one of Scotland's largest whisky producers, Chivas Brothers, on the shores of Kilbirnie Loch. Scotland is definitely behind us now, no more of narrow roads, witch's cottages and shaggy cattle. We are on our way to the ferry from Cairnryan to Larne, ready for our next adventure in gigantic (Northern) Ireland.
Next Blog: 3.7 Gigantic (Northern) Ireland