With one arm resting half-in, half-out of the diver’s side window of our white Chevy Crew Cab pickup truck the wind raced over my skin, cooling it, while tugging gently at my arm hairs. A periodic errant gust would collide with my skin before diverting inward to tickle my face and fill my ears with the sound of the fresh black tarmac whizzing by beneath rugged truck tires. My eyes locked forward on the road, one hand on the wheel casually navigating the high mountain two-lane highway that threaded through the passes near Silverton in south-western Colorado.…
In Part I of this series I shared with you the adventures and experiences of my first two days on the road. This included the trip from Edinburgh through Glen Coe to Ratagan before outlining my second day which was dedicated completely to the Isle of Skye. In this post we pick up where I left off as I leave Skye and the most famous part of the highlands behind in favor of delving into Scotland’s far less known northwestern coast. You can also skip forward to the 3rd or 4th and final posts in this series.
Day 3 – Ullapool Bound
The folks at the front desk of the Ratagan Hostel suggested that (if I was up for it) I consider driving the switchbacks on the back road to Applecross. With two days of Scottish driving under my belt, I was a bit anxious about the concept of hairpin turns and a narrow winding one-lane road with two-way traffic but they promised the view would be worth it. So, what choice did I have? The lump in my throat grew and indecision struck me ever so briefly when I arrived at the turnoff for the road and was met by a giant sign warning off all but the most experienced drivers. With typical tourist bravado I paused to take a photo of the sign, muttered to myself, laughed, and pressed the accelerator to the floor. The first quarter kilometer was easy enough. That is, with the exception of the large trucks that came pummeling down the small paved road and left me more concerned that my little beetle would end up plastered to their front grill than stuck in a bog. With a death-grip on the steering wheel, I took a deep breath and pictured myself as Jason and the Argonauts dodging and battling the Harpies while pressing forward.
After a few blind turns the road jogged up the side of a small hill and wrapped towards a series of nearby glens. With each new turn new mountains emerged from the mists covered in the tree-free rich green and purple hues you’ll only find in Scotland. Over the course of a 7 minute drive I found myself seemingly transported back into time as is likely to happen when traveling Scotland’s remote roads. Through it all, I couldn’t help but expect some mythical beast or pre-historic pterodactyl to come gliding in my direction while prowling for tender morsels for its hatchlings.
Luckily the road was well paved, albeit covered by a fine layer of gravel. Traffic was light, but just thick enough that when we did meet it left both vehicles skidding across the gravel before coming to a halt…almost always as we rounded a blind bend or invisible hilltop.
Just as I was starting to get a bit cocky about the drive and wondering if the switchbacks had been over-stated I rounded a final bend and was met with a naked green valley cut in half by the bright white thread of a rain-fed stream racing its way towards the nearby loch. With a cloud ceiling that hovered just below the top of the peaks the view reminded me of a more pristine, albeit ever so slightly smaller, Glen Coe. The only sign of man’s presence was the old old scar left by the road and a set of small, weather worn power lines as they it worked their way beneath the ever vigilant gaze of the old Scottish peaks en-route to the summit.
The road was intense with barely enough room for the car in many spots: A steep drop on the left and the car-rending jagged facade of the water-worn crumbling mountainside to the right. Luckily, there were several viewpoints which gave me a chance to pause, relax, and enjoy the view while letting the occasional car pass me by. Something which added to the experience, as the view down the length of the valley, past the small waterfalls, and over the meandering stream was one of my favorite views of the trip. The soul-moving beauty of the place and the moment was magnified by the slow throb of adrenaline as I prepared to continue each new-leg of the drive … something made that much more dramatic by the sight of a thick fog slowly drifting down from the heights of the nearby peaks.
Within a matter of a few brief minutes the fog settled completely over the valley immersing it in a thick blanket of damp grayness. After reaching the top of the switchbacks I continued along the road for about 1km before pausing to marvel at the alien sight of the Scottish countryside as it vanished into nothingness around me. It was deeply eerie, particularly because the fog dampened all nearby sounds leaving the road in absolute silence with the exception of the soft rustle of grass or tinkle of water dripping into one of the small nearby lakes. While I often write about the power and beauty of expansive views that take the breath away, the intimate closeness of moments such as the 10 minutes I spent relaxing beside my car along the side of the road on my way to Applecross stand out in my memory as equally powerful and goodsebump raising.
Moments of reverie concluded, I contemplated my next course of action. I had no clue what stood before me in the fog should I decide to continue on to Applecross, if there would be a lunch venue open, or how far off it was. I only knew that what had already been a rather thrilling drive up the switchbacks promised to be an even more harrowing drive back down now that the fog had reduced visibility to just a few feet. With a lot of miles to cover to Ullapool and the day racing by I flipped on some haunting Celtic music, turned the volume up, rolled down the windows and opted to every so slowly and carefully re-trace my steps. While challenging, the drive back down was every bit as beautiful as the drive up had been. Some 20 minutes later I once again sat before the large warning sign, a beaming smile of accomplishment plastered on my face as I re-joined the main road and continued along past small farm houses, B&Bs, and a mixture of tiny lochs and rolling green hills.
With an eye on the fog-turned clouds I decided to pick up the pace and to see if I could leave them behind. One of the great things about Scotland’s temperamental weather is that it is always changing and hyper local. Raining in the mountains? Head 15 miles to the coast nearby and you’re apt to find sun and dry beaches. The opposite true? Strike for the mountains and you’ll no doubt leave the bad weather behind. Following this approach I had just started to leave a light rain behind when I saw a gorgeous waterfall from the road. Curious if I could get close to it, I turned down a rural Scottish lane which turned out to be a road to what I believe was a small campground. My exploration turned out to be short lived as I rather quickly was forced to pause when I found my path blocked by a closed gate. With the path to the waterfall a no-go I snapped a few photos, enjoyed the view, and then made my way along A832 which wound through a lush forest beside the shores of Loch Maree.
To my surprise I spotted a marker for “Victoria Falls”. Not expecting much, but eager to see a waterfall sharing the same namesake as Zambia’s Victoria Falls – arguably the greatest waterfalls in the world – I pulled into a small dirt car park. The car park itself didn’t look like much. The trees in the area around it had semi-recently been harvested leaving a mixture of ugly stumps, gnarled roots, and mixture of blooming wildflowers.
Luckily the area in the immediate vicinity of the falls had been spared. With the heather and other local flowers in full bloom, I settled in atop an old tree stump and delighted in my little discovery. The waterfall wasn’t the grandest or the most beautiful, but it was still one of the best I had seen so far on the trip and is a must-see if you find yourself in the area. Scotland’s mini-Vic has a beautiful drop, lovely greenery surrounding it, and if you’re lucky is awash not only in rich green hues, but also purples, reds, yellows and golds.
Not a mile goes by while driving the back roads of the north western coast during which you don’t want to stop for a stroll, to explore some small loch, or to wander down an even smaller rural road. In so doing you’ll have the chance to discover some of Scotland’s best kept secrets…most of which are only known to locals. There are also a number of slightly larger towns along the road which offer a mixture of limited culinary options and various activities. To my surprise I learned that it is possible to take sightseeing cruises dedicated to whale watching, sea lions, diving, or even in some cases killer whales. The harbors are also well worth a visit at low tide, so you can properly see and experience northwestern Scotland’s drastic tidal extremes in which water levels rise and fall by as much as 20+ feet.
Another of Scotland’s best kept secrets are its beaches. With harsh weather and its cold climate thoughts of Scotland’s coasts often bring with them visions of jagged stony shores, dramatic cliffs, and crude pebble beaches.
While you can find all of that and more along the coastline, you’ll also find some of the most picture-perfect beaches in Europe with incredibly fine golden, white, and yellow sand, crystal clear water and ample beach access. The downside? It’s often still far too chilly to take a swim or to properly enjoy the beaches for anything beyond a relaxing stroll or brief bit of sunbathing.
With a careful eye on the clock, I was forced to sprint the last leg of the trip to ensure I reached Corrieshalloch Gorge and its stunning waterfall a bit before sunset. I had been introduced to the gorge a few years previous while doing a multi-day tour of the north western coast and the Orkney Isles. At the time our visit was rushed, but I fell in love with the spot. Not only because of the dramatic waterfall, but also because of the gorge with its plant-covered near-vertical walls. The path down to the gorge from the road is brief, but zig-zags through a small wild-flower garden. Upon reaching the gorge you’re met by a floating suspension bridge that free-hangs over the the falls offering a gut-twisting view…particularly when the small bridge starts to sway slightly. For perspective as to the size of the gorge note the photographer in the above photo located at the center of the bridge.
While I’m unsure about the orientation, I suspect that the falls would be every bit as impressive at sunrise (perhaps more so) than at sunset. The best view of the falls is from a metal overlook situated on the opposite side of the gorge and about a 5 minute walk past the bridge. While not for those with height fears, the platform extends out from the sheer wall of the gorge and has an open railing and metal grate for a floor leaving you feeling almost as though you’re getting a bird’s eye view. The sound of the falls combines with the sound of the near-constant mild breeze which floats down the canyon while gently stirring the trees which sprout from the walls of the gorge in apparent acts of grand acrobatics and utter defiance of gravity.
The last one to leave the gorge, I made my way back to my car before driving the remaining 15 minutes down and into the area’s largest town: Ullapool. Home to a large market, a number of fishing vessels, a plethora of B&Bs, a few hotels, and a large hostel it was the perfect place to crash for the evening. I dropped off my bag, picked up some fish and chips and then sat enjoying the sunset as the sky turned violet before drifting into darkness.
As with every leg of this trip, I could have easily gone slower and spent more time exploring side roads or relaxing along the way at any of the numerous wonderful spots I found during the drive. The region is also crisscrossed with what are reputed to be incredible hiking trails. Stay tuned for the next post in this series which will follow Day 4 of the adventure and cover the far reaches of the north western coast of Scotland, including Smoo Cave before marking the start of my gradual return to Edinburgh.
You can view all of my photos from this leg of the trip in the flickr album here.
*A special thank you to www.carrentals.co.uk who partially sponsored my car rental and helped make this trip possible.
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.