Off The Beaten Path: Exploring Scotland’s Far North

After a wonderful evening I awoke the next morning feeling rested and rejuvenated. Unfortunately, my brother and I had ended up in different rooms within the hostel – which left me disconnected from his watch and any idea of what time it was. You see, I’d forgotten to pack a watch or alarm clock for the trip. This left me in a perpetual state of temporal bewilderment. It was made that much more confusing by our northerly latitude and the nearly endless summer days.

A large black slug

With no clue as to the precise hour, I quickly glanced around the room. Two of the women had apparently gotten up. Two more were still contentedly dozing. I decided to take advantage of a head start. I carefully danced my way down the side of the bunk bed, doing my utmost to be quiet while trying not to slip and fall off the wobbly wooden structure. Once down it was off for a warm shower and spot of breakfast.

Route

Before long the others began to appear and we slowly started loading into the van. There was a changing of the guard – which ultimately made for an interesting dynamic. Six of the people that had ridden to Loch Ness with us the day before were actually on a two-day tour and were splitting off with another guide/bus which had arrived that evening. Six people from an extended tour who’d already been on the road for several days exploring the Lewis and Harris isles replaced them. We soon found out, however, that of the six newcomers, four were to be a royal pain. Of the four they came in two pairs of two. An Israeli mother and daughter and a tall Englishman and his Chinese girlfriend. The Israeli’s were clueless, high maintenance and completely different than most of the down to earth traveling Israeli’s I’ve met. Armpit hair aside, it was like having two whiney kids that we all had to babysit. The Englishman and his girlfriend were similar in a very different sort of way. I really have no clue how to convey him accurately – especially without being offensive – let me just say that he embodied a negative British stereotype to a T. Almost out of a Monty Python skit – from a powerful need for tea, to constantly complaining, to being offended most of the time. All the while alternating between fighting with his girlfriend and referring to her as, “my love” in a way that reminded me of that guy who won’t stop talking about himself in 3rd person. Enough of that – on to the real adventure!

Rogie Falls Scotland

From Loch Ness we shot north up along Loch Ness towards Inverness on the eastern coast. There we filled our final two spots with a French mother and daughter who were an absolutely delightful addition to the group. Inverness is a beautiful city with classic winding Scottish lanes, beautiful old churches, a palatial castle overlooking the city and a winding river that slowly winds through town.

A Highland Flower

From Inverness we headed north toward our first actual stop – Rogie Falls. Our guide, Martin, suggested we take a quick stop to glance at the waterfalls but also mentioned that it was as much a bathroom break as a stop to view the falls. “Just wait” he warned us, “We’re off to see something far, far more incredible.” The 10 minute walk down to the waterfall overlook was pleasant, winding down a mossy path flanked by ferns, moss covered trees and beautiful blooming flowers. It was along that path that we came across a massive black slug. Yes, the very same black slug that seemingly randomly was included above! I’m not usually a fan of little slimers, bugs and the like – but this slug was really impressive. A beautiful black it reminded me more of the gorgeous sea slugs you see while diving than a land-based relative. Not to mention at 3+ inches long it was huge!

The walk back to the van was delightful. The rain had stopped allowing me to fully enjoy the clean, earthy scent of the forest as my legs pumped and I scaled the small winding path back to the bus. All the while pausing to pick fresh blackberries from the bushes beside the path. Talk about paradise.

Corrieshalloch Gorge north of Ullapool

Fingers stained by blackberry juice we set off towards our next stop. After winding along Loch Glascarnoch and the smaller, albeit just as beautiful Loch Dorman, we found our way to Corrieshalloch Gorge just north of Ullapool on the north western coast. The parking area for the gorge was unassuming. Like most overlooks it stood on the side of a somewhat steep incline that led down into a stand of trees. All in all though, it looked more like a large drainage area than the site of an incredible, majestic gorge. Little did I know that hidden within the trees at the end of a 5 minute walk down switchbacks lined by foxglove, blooming heather and other gorgeous flowers, was a crack, diving into the heart of the earth itself.

Looking into Corrieshallock Gorge

Due to it’s nature photos don’t properly convey just how stunning the gorge was to behold. It reminded me in many ways of scenes out of great fantasy stories. Amazing gorges covered in moss, seeping water from natural springs – only tens of feet across that plummet down hundreds of feet to flowing water below. Only this had all of that, and a giant waterfall as well. In the photo I’ve included above you can see the lush vegetation on the vertical stone walls.

View from the Viewing Platform

There is an incredible suspension bridge over the gorge. Made out of metal, cables and wood planks, it handles 6 people at a time and sways as you cross. Despite being able to handle two people shoulder to shoulder, it’s an intense experience that reminded me of the old bridge that overlooks the waterfall into a similar albeit wider gorge overlooking Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. In addition to being able to see through the metal railings on either side, the wooden planks that make up the floor have decent sized cracks between them allowing a view of the void bellow your feet. Though that’s nothing compared to the metal viewing platform located further down the valley – which is pictured above. Talk about a 360 degree view!

View of the Gorge

The view back towards the bridge and the falls from the overlook was magical. The gorge and falls was easily one of my favorite parts of the trip. Of the many incredible places I’ve seen in my travels, there was something about Corriesalloch that captivated me. For video footage of the gulch – make sure to view the video at the very end of my introduction to the Scottish highlands video. Viewable here.

View of Ullapool

Lungs burning, legs feeling like lead weights, I quickly realized that Nate and I were the only two from the trip left down by the falls. Captivated by the magic of the place we’d fallen behind and set to running up the switchbacks back to the parking lot. Out of breath we crawled onto the bus for a 2 minute ride down the road to an overlook which offered a view of the valley the gorge opened up into and Ullapool. Photo above.

Ullapool

Located at the mouth of a large fjord, Ullapool was a delightful town with a harbor that in many ways reminded me of Maine and the north east coast of the U.S. – with fishing boats, crab boats, lobster boats, beautiful squat, white-washed houses and an incredible vista of mountains, ocean and coast the town has a surreal feel to it. More a scene out of a movie than an earthly place. In Ullapool we paused and grabbed a quick bite to eat, before piling back in and striking northward towards our ferry and the Orkneys.

Ardvreck Castle

From Ullapool it was time to cut across the northern coast. An incredible, sparsely populated landscape of misty mountains, crumbling cliffs and rolling green regions covered in sheep and peat. Before long we arrived at Ardvreck Castle – an old ruin located on a small peninsula surrounded by beautiful countryside.

Ardvreck Castle

Despite a light mist, we paused and I took several moments to relax and let the whole experience sink in, while the waves rippling to shore gently serenaded me.

Unapool

View otw to Unapool

View from the road during a quick stop on the way to Unapool.

Unapool View

From Ardvreck Castle it was back on the road again. Winding through fog, clouds and amazing scenery, until we reached Unapool. A beautiful little harbor with an incredible view. With blooming flowers behind us and a delightful open harbor to our right full of crabbing and fishing boats the view back up the Fjord was amazing.

Fijord with Rain

The view became even more impressive as a series of clouds rolled in at the far end of the Fijord.

Bloombing Flower in July in Scotland

The contrast in Scotland is one of the things I love the most about the region. The shot of the yellow flower above was taken at the same location as the previous three images. I just turned around, walked over to the small garden full of blooming flowers and snapped it. One thing you don’t hear about regularly is the incredible blooming gardens that dot the front yards of just about every northern Scottish house. Each bloom a vibrant color and each color a delightful cross section of the rainbow.

Though it’s contrary to my typical format – I’m afraid I’ll be cutting this post short and splitting the day into a two part piece. You see – despite the stories and photos I’ve shared above I’ve only covered half the day. Stay tuned for photos and stories from the 2nd half of the day. Believe it or not, this post only covers the morning’s sights, sounds, flavors and adventures.