Scotland. The land of primal music, men in kilts, Braveheart, and scotch. It is easily my favorite country in Europe. There’s just something about the naked beauty of the Scottish Highlands that captivates my imagination and draws me back time and time again.
It’s a place that is perpetually kissed by rain that serves as the lifeblood through which Scotland’s ethereal essence persists. Part of Scotland’s magic is its lush greenery, the prolific waterfalls, the small streams crashing down over weather-worn rocks, and the lazy mist-laden clouds that casually caress the walls of grand glens, lochs, and mountains which shoot up and out of the sea, racing towards the unusual light of the Scottish north.
My recent roadtrip through Scotland marked my fifth trip back to Scotland since I was first introduced to the country in 2004. Each time I expanded the parts of the country I explored while re-visiting old favorites. On the first four trips I predominantly relied upon day trips or multi-day budget backpacker tours. These introduced me to the world renowned Isle of Skye, as well as some of Scotland’s lesser known and more rural regions: The Orkney Isles, the Outer Hebrides, and Scotland’s northwestern coast. Yet, as great as the budget-backpacker trips were, they lacked the freedom and flexibility to stop when and wherever I wanted. They also meant I couldn’t explore side roads or take the time to properly photograph some of the places I fell in love with along the way. This left one and only one solution – to return for a fifth time and swallow my fear of driving in Europe, one way streets, and the angst of having to navigate the opposite side of the road. In short, it was time for a road trip.
When selecting a rental car, my first impulse had been to opt for a tiny smart car. As someone who learned to drive in the US and grew up driving large cars with automatic transmissions on Arizona’s boulevard-like streets, the concept of parallel parking, roundabouts, and manual transmissions terrified me. I figured that, if I got a smart car, it would be small enough that even in parallel parking situations, I’d be able to just pull in and park normally. Unfortunately, they were all out of smart cars. They also opted to upgrade me from the Chevy Aveo I’d reserved to a brand new (46km on the odometer) automatic VW Beetle Coupe. As I sat in the passenger seat of the Beetle as the associate who picked me up drove me to fill out the paperwork at the Enterprise lot, I felt a bit torn. Here I was, a 6’4″ tall male about to undertake a 7 day solo road trip … and it was looking like I’d be driving a sky blue VW Beetle. Luckily the new 2013 coupe was a radically re-imagined version of previous incarnations of the beetle. After I settled in, I fit comfortably and I decided I rather liked the look and that my masculinity would survive and even come to embrace the color. So when the time came to take over the driver’s seat I charted the first leg of my trip and set off. Palms sweaty, heart racing, and breathing shallow I felt the touch of a gas peddle under my foot for the first time in more than a year and slowly eased out into Scottish traffic on to what to me was the wrong side of the street.
Day 1 – Edinburgh to Ratagan Hostel
The first day’s drive was a long haul. Despite a relatively late start – it was approaching noon before I got on the road – I had to cut across the center of Scotland to the western coast and then up through Fort William before threading through the famous Glen Coe to eventually end the day’s drive at the small village of Ratagan. The first day’s drive was grueling, in part because it covered the part of Scotland I’d seen several times before. It is a beautiful stretch, but mostly consists of the foothills to the Highlands and my goal with this trip was to delve deeply into Scotland’s hinterlands. I’d chosen Ratagan because of its availability and proximity to the Isle of Skye. The plan was to reach it from Edinburgh in one day and then spend the following day on Skye. In retrospect I really wish I’d left Edinburgh earlier in the morning. As familiar as the Edinburgh to Skye drive was, having the freedom to explore it on my own meant that I still found myself feeling rushed.
My route took me through thickly wooded forest, past moss-covered stone fences, through open fields, and provided me with the chance to pause and re-visit Scotland’s famous highland co0 (cow) who patiently stands vigil at a small truck stop near the entrance to the Scottish Highlands. If you’ve never seen Highland cows, they usually have orange or black hair, large horns, and shaggy hair with big bushy bangs. Despite the usual light rains which are to be expected, I got incredibly lucky and broke through the clouds just as I entered the flats that stand at the entrance to Glen Coe and its sister glens. For those unfamiliar with Scottish terminology, ‘glens’ are what we’d more commonly refer to as valleys and ‘lochs’ are what we’d call lakes. You can have freshwater lochs and saltwater lochs. The saltwater lochs or sealochs are closer to what non-Scots call estuaries, bays, or fjords.
I knew that the one place I absolutely had to have time to explore was Glen Coe. As I approached the inspiring glen, I found myself making a quick stop at Lochan Na H-Achlaise – a small lake that marks the mouth of Glen Coe. The lake is located in a near-treeless highland meadow, ringed by the rich purple blooms of fresh heather which are brilliantly reflected in its perfectly still waters. It’s the type of loch that brings Arthurian legend to mind and I found myself staring at the still waters breathlessly, waiting for the Lady of the Lake’s hand to break the water with Excalibur clasped in her grip. With great difficulty I jumped back into the car and made it about 10 minutes down the road before spotting a side road that cut back into one of the side glens that sits just behind Glen Coe. Without a moment’s hesitation I dove down the paved one-lane track and wound my way along a fern-lined stream that wandered its way between the valley’s mighty walls. Mindful of time but unable to resist the solitude of the spot, I paused again to reflect, relax, and snap a few photos before returning to the car and the main road.
The winding road that wraps its way into Glen Coe is full of distractions. It often clings to the wall of the valley just above the glen’s small stream. This provides numerous overlooks and opportunities to pull out and oogle the stream’s numerous waterfalls. When the glen eventually opens up, the road comes to one of the two large pullouts where road-trippers and tour-bus travelers alike are able to disembark. It’s a fantastic feeling as you stand in the midst of the glen surrounded by steep rock walls that glisten with moisture that seeps out from the mountain’s depths. All the while, the clouds drift across the rock faces giving you a real feeling of movement. To add to the powerful sensation that marks Glen Coe, it’s also a place with a rich and tragic history. A place of murder, of betrayed trust, of politics, and of winter sorrows. For those familiar with the history of the Glencoe Massacre, it doesn’t take much to imagine the glen covered in snow. Snow stained by blood. Luckily, it also has a happier history and served as one of the primary spots for filming in the Harry Potter films. So Harry Potter diehards with a keen eye may just be able to recognize a familiar hill or sweeping vista.
As the light thinned and my first day raced to a close I sped along the coast and up past the small town of Fort William. From there, I drive past captivating loch after captivating loch. Each provided some new twist on the beautiful white Scottish light that provided its own special feeling and appeal. At other points I found small pull-offs where travelers had built stone cairns. These stood like shadows of the small forest that no longer lined the banks of the now naked lochs. It quickly became apparent that I hadn’t given myself enough time and I was forced to skip a number of wonderful spots to make sure I arrived at the Ratagan hostel while it was still light out and before check-in ended for the evening. But, even as I slowly rolled along the coastal road that served as the main artery for the tiny village of Ratagan, I was treated to still waters painted by the red hues of sunset and the crisp reflections of old sailboats anchored in the bay.
DAY 2 – The Isle of Skye
About a year and a half ago images started to appear on the social sharing site Reddit.com of gorgeous waterfalls and pools somewhere on the Isle of Skye. They captivated my imagination and left me eager to see if I could visit the ‘Fairy Pools’ in person. This, combined with a strong desire to re-visit the Quiraing and the Old Man of Stor, shaped my itinerary for my day-long visit to the Isle of Skye. In retrospect, one day was too short a visit. I needed 2-3 to explore it completely.
As I pulled out of the parking lot in front of the hostel, the view that awaited me was one of a flat bay, smooth waters, and nearly clear sky that had the texture of brushed steel. In short, it was the type of weather you often dream about in Scotland but rarely get to enjoy. Though I’d paused for the evening near Skye, I still had a 25-minute drive to reach the bridge out onto the island. This allowed me to visit one of Scotland’s most sought after gems, Eilean Donan Castle, at both the start and conclusion of my day’s drive. The castle, which is actually a 100-year old reproduction of a historic blueprint, has been used in a number of different movies and stands vigil on the nearby sealoch from a tiny island which visitors are able to reach by way of a hardy stone footbridge. While the visitor’s center charges for access during they day, those who are more interested in just walking the area and seeing it from the shoreline can visit after it closes at 5 pm for a more intimate look at the castle. Just remember to be careful, as the tide in the loch rises quite quickly!
After a minor diversion at the castle for several photos I crossed the bridge onto Skye and encountered one of the island’s many roadside waterfalls. As regular readers are well aware, I’ve got a bit of a waterfall obsession and so it only took me a brief moment of hesitation before I pulled over, grabbed my camera gear, and went tramping across the springy Scottish peat for an up-close and personal view of the falls. The falls themselves were lined by the rich green hues of fresh peat and a veritable sea of healthy ferns. Sporadically thrown into the mix were the vibrant purples and violets of heather in full bloom. This combination of rich earthy greens, sweet honey-scented heather blossoms, humid fresh water, and the twang of salt-sea air, created an incredible bouquet of smells which left me switching from smelling flowers, to shooting photos and back again. Photos snapped, and spurred by my fairly tight time frame, I took 10 minutes to lie down beside the falls upon a comfortable bed of peat and heather before returning to my car and continuing my trip towards the southwestern part of Skye.
Eager to take the road less traveled, I took old service roads and traced my way along the coast. After a brief stretch of main road I returned to another side road. This offered views of the large circular salmon fisheries which can be found floating in the midst of the lochs, as well as small herds of rather rotund and well-cared for Scottish (Hairy) cows (Coos) with their charming bangs, massive horns, and shaggy black and ginger coats. In some places the cows had found resting spots along the road. They seemed eager for attention while at the same time showing a cat-like level of apathy and boredom with the small groups of tourists that jostled against the barbed-wire fences in the hope of snapping the perfect Scottish photo.
I was still feeling somewhat uncomfortable driving on the opposite side of the road but was rapidly gaining confidence. Using my map, I attempted to navigate the countryside in my pursuit of the warren of unmarked roads and small country lanes which I hoped would lead me to the fairy pools. As my drive progressed, I left behind the coastal ring road and cut into the island’s interior in pursuit of the rugged mountain range that stretches across the southern part of the island. What greeted me were rolling hills, small lochs, blooming flowers, and naked mountains that seemed resurrected from a different time in earth’s history.
Several missed turns later, with a slightly confused look on my face, I eventually found my way down to one of the sealochs on the opposite side of the island where I was greeted by two beautiful things: a) this row of abandoned fishing boats resting on a stone beach just beside a graveyard dedicated to those lost at sea; and b) the road to the Talisker Scotch Distillery. Unfortunately, as I lacked a designated driver and time, I opted to spend a few moments with the ships before taking a tiny one-lane road in the direction of what I hoped were the Fairy Pools at Glen Brittle.
The country road was a joy to drive. It rounded sharp curves, wound along a small hill crest, and jumped over dry stream beds in a way that drove and felt a bit like a rally race. It also came with an imposing view as I worked my way out of the gentle rolling hills of Skye’s inland areas and made my way towards Glen Brittle.
Situated in the midst of Glen Brittle, part of what makes the Fairy Pools so impressive and mystical is their location at the foot of the Cuillin which is the largest mountain range on the Isle of Skye reaching 3,250+ feet at Sgurr Alasdair along the Black Cuillin. The stream that feeds the pools flows from a crack in the midst of the mountain that looks truly otherworldly. It is, in many ways, straight from what one might imagine in the Lord of the Rings, as a portal to another realm. Combined with the mountain range’s dark rock and treeless mystique, it strikes a strange balance between something that could seem slightly off-putting and, at the same time, has the look and feel of vibrant life, fertility, and mother nature’s lustful beauty.
With the mild threat of rain on the horizon, I eventually found the pools and prepared for the brief walk down to them. The path cut across Glen Brittle and was mostly flat with small hills and an earthen path that threaded through the grass, peat, and heather.
One of the things that makes Scotland so unreal to explore is the unique texture of the ground beneath your feet. Where we’re often familiar with walking across grass fields, dirty paths, rocky outcrops, or mossy forest floors, Scotland is covered by dense tundra-like foliage consisting of grass clumps, heather bushes, and peat. All of which comes together to create a springing ground covering that can leave you feeling as though you’re bounding across one giant mattress.
This fascinating combination truly is the stuff of fairy legends. It is common for the very ground you’re walking on to be awash in multi-colored blossoms and a densely woven mixture of different plants, flowers, ferns, and grasses.
The Fairy Pools themselves are a series of small waterfalls and deep pools filled by crystal clear water which is a combination of rain runoff and snow-melt from the nearby Cuillin mountains. This small stream has cut deep grooves into the bedrock with rich blue crystal clear waters that tease at your senses and almost demand that you strip off your clothes and dive in.
While the falls and pools would still be quite charming if found elsewhere, what really makes them so special and a-typical is the heather, ferns, small trees, moss-covered rocks, and imposing presence of the Black Cuillin which surround them. It takes the pools from merely beautiful water features and transforms them into something which is almost a little too colorful, too green, and too lush to be believed.
For those who look closely, it is easy to see just how impressive a force water can be. In many places small channels have been cut through the rock. These channels often rest beside others, with perfectly smooth walls which look like they have been carved by small fairy craftsmen. What results is a mixture of deep pools and shallow fountains which demand exploration.
As a light rain started to fall, responding to a rumbling in my stomach, I headed back to the car and wound north. The hope was to swing by the Old Man of Stor and Quiraing for a re-visit. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time, but did manage to grab takeout fish and chips from a small shop that claimed it was the oldest bakery on Skye. Back in the car I turned down a tiny dirt lane just past Dunvegan Castle.
With a lap full of absolutely fantastic fish and chips, I relaxed in the front seat of my VW Beetle Coupe with the windows down and watched fisherman pass through the loch in front of me as a light rain settled over the island.
Rested, fed, and concerned I was going to miss sunset at Eilean Donan Castle, I wound my way back down and across the Isle of Skye before pulling into the car park that sits just beyond the castle’s bridge. Once there, I walked along the coast towards the coastal highway bridge where I stumbled upon a charming sigh t- that of an older women pausing atop a tiny hill beside the castle to sketch the structure and the sunset.
As she watched the castle, I found my own perch to rest, smoking my pipe in the gentlest of rains, as the tide slowly swallowed the rocks that spread out before my feet.
My visit to Skye finished with a spectacular sunset that cast piercing rays of light upon Eilean Donan Castle while simultaneously sourcing richly-colored reflections in the near-still waters of the loch. I still feel as though I have a lot to discover. While the island is becoming increasingly popular and slowly losing some of its rustic charm, there are still many rural areas to explore and less-known roads and paths which offer the peace and silent tranquility that makes Skye so hauntingly beautiful.
*A special thank you to www.carrentals.co.uk who partially sponsored my car rental and helped make this trip possible.