The crisp morning air made it difficult to drag myself out from beneath the mound of heavy down blankets the hostel had opted for in place of heaters. With a groan and a roll I pulled myself upright and then wormed my toes into my boots. It didn’t take long before I started to come back to life as I noticed that beyond the nearby windows, the weather looked pleasant. A revisit to Smoo Cave with its subterranean waterfall chamber had been one of the primary draws which had pulled me towards the northwestern tip of Scotland. With a yawn and a stretch, it was time to hurry down for one of the first cave tours of the day – all in the hope that I would beat out the inevitable flooding that came each afternoon as the Scottish summer rains dumped their load on to the rain-drenched hillsides of the rugged Scottish glens situated a few miles to the south. Inevitably, when the rains found their way to already damp creek beds it would quickly flood them and turn each into small rivers racing gleefully, like highland sprites, towards the coast.
The evening before had been uncharacteristically dry by the time I reached Smoo with naught but a gentle rain earlier in the afternoon. In the fading light of the late afternoon, I had paused to capture the beautiful colors and otherworldly visage of the waterfall from a wooden platform carefully constructed just inside the chamber long ago carved out by the falls’ hammering fists. Both that evening and the following morning found the falls relaxed, gentle, and calm. Nowhere near the raging torrent I’d encountered some years back during my first visit. At that time, even to approach the railing left us with water in our eyes and our jackets soaked through.
To my delight there were only a couple of us waiting to commence the quick tour. With 4 GBP in hand I donned my hardhat and kept myself busy wandering the grand chamber that serves as the mouth to the cave. The chamber, carved by the sea, is a wondrous thing and the type of place that has shaped and inspired the greatest of stories through the millennia. From a dragon’s fossilized maw to a dark and treacherous home to trolls and sea sirens, Smoo Cave could easily serve as inspiration for it all.
Situated in the back corner of the front chamber there is a crack, covered in lichen, moss, and various other richly colored foliage. The caretakers of Smoo long ago lit it with a lamp which I suspect not only feeds and gives life to the greenery but also shines light on an emerald green hued collapsed crevasse. The crevasse looks as though it must be a portal into the underworld or some parallel dimension. It’s both captivating and strangely eerie.
The floor of the partially enclosed chamber sits mostly in shade with the exception of a space in the midst which, similar to a hole in the clouds, can periodically be seen bathed in golden rays. When the conditions are right, a grand hole in the roof of the chamber – one which once was no doubt carved out by a waterfall similar to the one deeper within – now serves as a great skylight. Beside where the ray of light hits the ground, a slow but constant stream of water emerges from beneath the rocks and the wooden boardwalk which protrudes from a small tunnel connecting the grand chamber to the inner sanctum and allows visitors a glimpse of the waterfall. The water is crisp, cool, and mostly clear though also possessed of the dark burgundy tint that comes from flowing through thick layers of peat.
As I lost myself to daydreams and snapping photos I was called back to reality by our guide who had arrived, lopsidedly donned his hardhat, and was ready to shuffle us inside to where a good-sized inflatable river raft rested atop the deep dark waters of the chamber clawed slowly from the depths of the earth by the ever temperamental flow of the waterfall’s thundering cascade. With a gravel-filled voice that hinted of dust, wet days, whiskey and phlegm, our guide launched into a series of barked commands and grand stories about the history, exploration, and heritage of Smoo Cave.
We scrambled into the raft, inevitably hitting our heads at least once on the bottom of the dock, despite our guide’s words of warning. Then, with a shove, he pulled us by guide rope out into the main chamber of the cave…pausing just long enough to toss a bit of bread out into the waters where the still surface quickly transformed into a tumultuous boil as fish tore the stale bread asunder. Though otherwise harmless, it was enough that most of us kept our fingers out of the water.
As we floated across the chamber we caught a great look at the now gentle trickle of water making its way into the cave. It was beautiful, relaxing, and the light coming down from above gave everything a mystical feel to it. Then, to my surprise, we continued forward, pressing ourselves against the floor of the raft as we slid beneath a low hanging stone arch, before moving into another smaller and mostly enclosed chamber. A few tugs further and the boat came to rest against water-worn rocks as we stared down a long chamber, roughly the height of a man.
As we splashed along through a shallow trickle of water, keeping mostly to somewhat slippery wooden boards laid down to aid us as we made our way along, our guide explained the ancient history of the caves. How they’re worn through the soft layers of rock and date back through the millennium. Eventually, we reach what appeared to be the end. A small pool and a bit of water flowing forth. It looked the part of a spring but was, our guide told us, the entrance to a submerged tunnel that went back a ways before giving way to a collapse. He gestured at what looked like darker rocks or dirt, before sharing that what we were in fact seeing was ancient charcoal dating back to times of woolly mammoths, hunter gatherers, and early man.
Though attempts to explore the tunnel had never been able to penetrate much deeper, blocked in no small part by the fine sediment that once disturbed utterly blocked visibility, he shared his suspicion that there was another large chamber further in that had been blocked off with time. It’s a mystery that I have to admit captured my imagination as much as it seems to have toyed with his. What might be found on the other side? A stone wall? The remains of our distant relatives? An abandoned residence with fire-pit and long-forgotten larder?
Imaginations ignited, we slowly made our way back to the raft, then back out into sunlight. I’m rarely bothered by tight spaces, with the exception of my caving adventure in Budapest, but it always feels great to re-emerge into the sun. I bid my host goodbye, jumped into my trusty blue bug, and set off for Innsbruck. I wasn’t quite sure how long my route would last or where it would take me. But, I knew that I was running out of time and needed to cover a lot of ground.
The Northwestern coast of Scotland is by far the most interesting. At least, if you’re drawn to emptiness and a countryside full of texture. The more tame flat lands to the East have trouble competing with these glens, lochs, and rivers that give it such life and depth. That said, there is a naked beauty to it which is equally charming.
Though I had initially hoped to continue up to John o’Groats and Scotland’s most northernly areas with a hat-tip to Orkney, I quickly realized that I lacked the time I needed.
So, I began to make my way along the northern coast heading towards Thurso and planning to cut south from there. As I made my way along the coast, I quickly spotted a series of small roads splitting off to the left and the right. These demanded exploration and twice I cut down to the northern coast, enjoying small harbors and wonderful if slightly storm-tossed views.
The Scottish beaches are beautiful, especially in the North, with many consisting of gorgeous white and yellow sands. Sadly, the weather is rarely conducive to sunbathing, but it also keeps the beaches that much more pristine and raw.
Nervously checking my watch, I realized I’d spent longer than intended between my exploration of Smoo and trips to the coast. I also eyed the A9 suspiciously, anything but eager to re-join a major highway any sooner than I needed to. So, it was back to a side road that looked like it would cut across the interior before dumping me somewhere near Helmsdale. I’ve done my best to re-create my route on the attached map, but I have to confess I was partially lost for most of it. If a road cut in the right direction, I took it. An approach that took me through absolutely spectacular rural countryside, through small forests, past farmland, through open grasslands and peat bogs, alongside planted forests being harvested, and through a number of tiny villages.
One word of caution for anyone looking to take a similar route and approach: Make sure you fill up on petrol before doing so. Stations were few and very far between. Similarly, make sure to pack a snack! During some parts of the drive I’d go for 20 minutes before passing another car or seeing another person. It was incredible. Especially when taking into consideration that I was in the heart of old-Europe.
As the weather rolled over me, sun, partial clouds, light rain, mists, the landscape transformed before my eyes. The color of the gently rolling landscape was ever-so special and unusual. The sight of the Scottish rain pockets rolling over the countryside were enchanting. The utter absence of people and gorgeous nature that surrounded me was deeply centering. Meanwhile the charming little villages or rural farm houses that I passed along my way also left me smiling. It’s the perfect place for a lovely mixture of music as well as it’s that type of backdrop that reminds me completely of a movie. Enjoying it in silence is a must, as is setting different soundtracks to it and watching how it transforms your mood and experience.
Eventually I found myself vomited out of the interior and dumped back into civilization. I hunted down some food, refilled my gas tank, and sped along the A9 down the eastern coast. As I did I enjoyed the countryside as it whisked by, taking note of the cute seaside towns that decorate the side of the road. It’s also an area with ample lodges, resorts and old castles though few of these caught more than my passing attention. One that did catch my eye long enough to circle back and explore a bit was Dunrobin Castle, a beautiful historic castle done in the traditional French chateau style. While the interior of the castle had closed for the day, I still found the time to wander the castle’s gardens which were regal, charming, and perfectly maintained. A quick meandering through the gardens left me in a jolly mood but eager for dinner and my arrival in Inverness. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I also passed a number of great distilleries, Glen Morangie among them, any of which would have been a fantastic pit stop (had I not been driving).
By early evening I rolled into Inverness, found my hostel, parked the car and grabbed a bit of rest before setting out to catch sunset along the river and dinner at a local pub. The town of Inverness serves as the gateway to the North and is respectably large, if still possessing the charm of a significant Scottish city. The waterfront and cathedrals are definitely worth checking out, as is a relaxed wander through the city. There’s lots to see in the area and if I’d had more time, I would have loved to have delved deeper into the local history. As is, I settled for a sunset, a pint, and a bit of traditional Scottish pub music before calling it an early night.
Onward to Edinburgh
With the home stretch in sight, I knew there were a few stops I needed to make and a sprawling national park that I had to explore. From Inverness, I set out making the short drive to Culloden Battlefield. While battlefields are often a fairly somber but somewhat uninteresting affair – they are, after all, typically just a large field – the history, story and tragedy of Culloden is powerful and deeply ingrained in the region’s cultural memory. The visitor center and battlefield grounds are moving and do a beautiful job bringing the history back to life. It’s well worth a stop and taking the time to explore.
From Culloden it was back on the A9 plunging southward until I’d penetrated deep into Cairngorms National Park. From there I stuck to my typical approach, launching off onto small back roads that wound southward near Ben Macdui, past lakes, and along small back roads. There are a number of castles, palaces and hunting lodges spread throughout the area which will appeal to people with more time and more interest in those types of old mansions. For me, it was more about winding through the woods, enjoying the mixture of colors, stumbling on lovely little waterways and getting lost while pausing to wander along dirt paths whenever the mood took me.
Eventually my path returned me to the A9 near Pitlochry where I tracked the river southward, but not before heading to Aberfeldy, home to a fantastic scotch distillery (which I was unable to stop at) for one of my last forays down a quiet side road. Then I was sucked into the suburbs surrounding Perth and the road led me to Edinburgh. I took lunch just outside Aberfeldy with a mixture of seafood snacks and lunch meat I’d grabbed earlier from a local market. The road had been winding along the River Tay and the pullout I found was moss-covered, slightly over-grown, and quiet save for the sound of bubbling water and wind in the trees.
Hunger sated, it was back on the road to continue my search for the Hermitage. The Hermitage is a traditional stop on most Highland tours and not without great cause. It was a special place, which I’ve visited on just about every trip to Scotland. Situated just outside Dunkeld, north of Perth, the Hermitage sits within the Craigvinean Forest and is home to old trees, a beautiful old stone bridge, and Ossian’s Cave/Hall of Mirrors, which is a fantastic Georgian Folly built in the 1800s.
The Hermitage captured my imagination on my first visit in what I believe was 2007, when I arrived at the waterfall (well worth the short walk to see) and found that salmon were running. On each re-visit, I’ve been lucky to encounter the salmon running, though not always in the same numbers. If your timing is right, it’s well worth taking a few minutes to pause, relax, and enjoy the beauty, while taking in the sight of salmon braving the considerable challenge posed by Black Linn Falls.
Recharged and refreshed it was time to jump back in the car and finish my drive back to Edinburgh where one final adventure awaited, but not before taking a brief pause to marvel at the Forth Bridge which spans the Firth of Forth, a UNESCO World Heritage site just west of Edinburgh.
Upon reaching Edinburgh I met up with a friend from Copenhagen who had offered to put me up. We dropped off my stuff, chatted a bit, and then headed out on the town. Edinburgh remains one of my all-time favorite cities. There’s something about the Royal Mile, with the Castle looking down across the “New Town” which makes it feel like Arthurian legend come alive. That evening we’d be enjoying a bit of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a nearly month-long tribute to comedy, music, and stagecraft which takes over the city. Shows range from street performances and free shows in pubs and small venues, to premium performances with world-class acts. There’s a ton to see and the city is alive with performers, street acts, and jovial creative minds. If you find yourself traveling Scotland in August don’t miss a little time to enjoy Fringe, but do make sure to take it into consideration when booking accommodation in the city as it drives up rental prices and books out most of the hostels.
I rounded out my road trip with a final day spent in Edinburgh enjoying the shows before returning my trusty Beetle and heading to the airport.
Want more Scotland? View my full photo albums: Outer Hebrides & The Isle of Skye (2012) | Edinburgh and the Highlands (2012) | Scotland in Black and White (2013) | The Scottish Roadtrip (2013) | Scotland: Beyond the Isle of Skye (2013). You can also see video footage from my visits including additional footage from Orkney on YouTube.
*For those looking at the date on this post and wondering at the gap between the initial posts and the concluding chapter – you have my apologies. I got sidetracked by new adventures, backlog, photo-editing and technical difficulties. I know some of you have been waiting for and requesting this post for quite some time, so thank you for your patience!*
**A special thank you to www.carrentals.co.uk who partially sponsored my car rental and helped make this trip possible.