A 7 Day Road Trip Through Rural Scotland – The Final Leg

This is the conclusion to my series documenting my road trip through Scotland’s remote rural areas. Start at the beginning (highlands), jump to part II (Skye), or see Part III (Ullapool to Durness). 

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.

A Cold Beach - Northern Scotland

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.

The Portal to Smoo Cave - Durness, Scotland

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.

A 7 Day Road Trip Through Rural Scotland – From Ullapool Northward

The Scotland Road Trip Map
The route, color coded by day, I took during my road trip through the Highlands.

In Part I and Part II of this series I shared with you the adventures and experiences of my first three 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. The third day documented the voyage from Skye up along the western coast to the small town of Ullapool.  In this post we pick up where I left off as I leave Ullapool and continue my exploration of the jagged, and largely empty, north western coast of Scotland. Impatient?  Jump to the fourth and final post in this series.

Scottish Waters – A Photo Essay in Black and White

The Hermitage Waterfall, Scotland

From its music to its history and folklore Scotland has always been one of the world’s epicenters for the mystical and magical.  It is an ethereal place which seems both a part of modern times and lost in the mists of  romanticized visions of bygone eras.  Cleared of trees thousands of years ago, the Scottish landscape has adapted, evolved, and transformed into a land of wonderful valleys, waterfalls, breathtaking lochs, and mountains. Mountains that are sometimes brutal, harsh and primitive with a naked majesty and elegant beauty unlike their cousins in the ranges of Norway, the American and Canadian Rockies, the South American Andes or Europe’s Alps.  This post seeks to showcase and share a sampling of Scotland’s incredible waterfalls.  Some are small – you’ll notice that one is more a rapid than waterfall – while others are related to waterfalls such as the flowing water inside Smoo Cave.  All were taken during a 6-day solo driving trip I made in August 2013.  Enjoy!

Skye's Fairy Pools

This location was made famous a year ago by Reddit when several photos of the “Fae Pools” on the Isle of Skye were posted.  It is a wonderful spot situated in the southwestern part of Skye and sits at the base of imposing cliffs with sheer walls that look straight out of the Lord of the Rings.  This waterfall is part of a series of falls that make up the fairy pools.

Corrieshalloch Gorge - Scottish Highlands

Located about 10 minutes outside of Ullapool, Corrieshalloch Gorge is a mouthful and a bit difficult to find on the map but an incredible location. This imposing waterfall crashes down into a narrow gorge with near-smooth walls heavily laden with rich green ferns and gorgeous moss.  The suspension bridge that crosses the gorge just above the falls is free floating, allowing both an incredible view of the falls and a hair-raising experience.

Scotland in Black and White

While far less famous than its big sister in south-central Africa, Scotland’s Victoria Falls is also well worth a brief stop.  A beautiful waterfall located along Loch Maree about an hour’s drive outside of Ullapool, this lovely waterfall was ringed by blooming flowers, heather, and thick ferns.  An added perk were the fresh raspberries which could be found along the path to and from the falls.

Skye's Fairy Pools

While the primary fairy pools are located along the main stream which is fed by runoff from the area’s craggy cliffs, there is a second smaller stream that feeds a series of petite falls and cozy pools which are located just beside the start of the hiking path.

Skye's Fairy Pools

This is the third photo from the fairy pools in this series.  This shot captures the incredible power of water as a cutting tool.  Note the smooth but abandoned channel immediately to the right of the jet of water currently cutting its way into the ancient bedrock.  A simple feat of natural engineering or an illustration of fae magic?  It’s hard to say!

Scotland in Black and White

A random waterfall situated near the road on the Isle of Skye.  The water from this stream flowed down across the grasslands before winding its way through orange, gold, and yellow- hued kelp and sea moss to the nearby sea loch.

The Hermitage Waterfall, Scotland

Located just outside of Perth, there is a wonderful nature reserve and brief hike. Commonly called “The Hermitage” it is home to this gorgeous waterfall. Perched overlooking the falls is a Georgian Folly – which is to say a semi-modern building built during the Georgian period for decoration with the goal of appearing much older than it actually is. If you’re lucky you can find massive Scottish Salmon running the waterfalls during their spawning season.

Smoo Cave - Durness, Scotland

One of my favorite places in Scotland, this photo is of Smoo Waterfall situated deep inside Smoo Cave.  The cave sits at the end of a small inlet carved over centuries of wear and tear.  It is easy to imagine that Smoo Cave, situated right outside of Durness, is the source for numerous myths and stories. Of these, Beowulf comes to mind. Over the years the tides, harsh coastal winds, and the constant onslaught of nature have carved out a large cavern which opens onto the ocean.  At the same time a nearby stream has gradually cut and tunneled its way towards the sea creating a series of caves.  As the flow of water changed, the stream periodically would carve holes in the roof of the chamber which at times caused it to collapse. At other times it created stunning portals such as this one where a small waterfall crashes down into a large pool.

Inside Smoo Cave - Durness, Scotland

If the weather cooperates and the falls are not raging, it’s possible to take a small inflatable raft across to the main chamber where the waterfall is, under a low hanging stone arch, and to a human-sized tunnel that winds into the hillside 100 feet or so before dead ending at a second small pool and series of small stalagmites.  While the path stops, the water’s source does not.  Testing done on charred ash which has been found in the water dates back thousands of years and indicates that humans have likely been exploring the cave system since before the rise of the Roman Empire.

Scottish Stream

One of the wonderful things about Scotland is the wealth of picturesque streams which line the bottoms of the area’s countless glens. This photo captures one such spot along the road just outside of the tiny village of Ratagan near the famous Eilean Donan Castle. A photo cannot convey the tranquility and rich scent that permeates the air, but I hope as you look at these photos you take a moment to close your eyes and imagine.

Skye's Fairy Pools

The final photo in this series is from the fairy pools. This pinned boulder easily weighed as much as I do.  It was a not-so-subtle reminder about the potential for harsh floods and thunderous water flows that no doubt happen several times a year during the heavy rains that keep the Isle of Skye and Highlands so alive and covered in a thick blanket of rich green foliage.

Corrieshalloch Gorge - Scottish Highlands

I’ll leave you with this final photo of the Corrieshalloch Gorge situated just outside of Ullapool. There’s something wonderfully dramatic about these falls which adds a sense of grandeur to them.  Perhaps it’s the confined space they exist within and the way the gorge frames them.  If you’re a waterfall fanatic like me, they’re a must-add to any Scottish itinerary.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the black and white photos I shot during my visit.

These photos were taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera using a Canon 50mm f1.4, Canon 18-135mm, and Canon 55-250mm lens. A special thank you to www.carrentals.co.uk who partially sponsored my car rental and helped make this trip possible.

This Beautiful World: 30 of My Favorite Travel Photos

The following are 30 of my favorite travel photos.  Shots were taken on PowerShot G series cameras (G6, or G11).  All are my original photos.  Please do not re-produce them without my consent. You can view more of my photography on flickr.

Sunrise in Playa del Carmen

1. Playa del Carmen, Mexico – Canon G11


2. Scottish Highlands, Scotland – Canon G6


3. Southern Crete, Greece – Canon G6


4. Glencoe Valley, Scotland – Canon G6

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

5. Tobacco Caye, Belize – Canon G11

The Bridge in Smoo Cave

6. Smoo Cave, Scotland – Canon G6

Dos Ojos, Mexico Cave Snorkeling

7. Dos Ojos, Mexico – Canon G11


8. Rob Roy’s Grave, Scotland – Canon G6

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

9. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia – Canon G6


10. Edinburgh, Scotland – Canon G6

Breakfast Parrot

11. Flores, Guatemala – Canon G11

Coastal Village

12. North Western Coast, Scotland – Canon G6


13. San Marino, San Marino – Canon G6

Highland Road

14. Road to Orkney, Scotland – Canon G6

Tobacco Caye, Belize

15. Tobacco Caye, Belize – Canon G11

Scottish Highlands

16. Small Village, Scotland – Canon G6

Barrier Reef - Sailing Tour - Belize

17. Belize Barrier Reef, Belize – Canon G11

Germany: Bavaria - Neuschwanstein Castle

18. Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany – Canon G6

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

19. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia – Canon G6

Fijord Fronds

20. Northern Coast, Scotland – Canon G6

Germany: Bavaria - Oktoberfest

21. Oktoberfest, Germany – Canon G6

York, England

22. Cathedral, York, Scotland – Canon G6

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

23. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia – Canon G6

Prague, Czech Republic

24. Prague, Czech Republic – Canon G6

Scottish Highlands

25. Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland – Canon G6


26. Cathedral, Italy – Canon G6

Dubrovnik - Croatia

27. Dubrovnik, Croatia – Canon G6

Florence - Italy

28. Florence, Italy – Canon G6


29. Nafplio, Greece – Canon G6

Cinque Terra - Italy

30. Cinque Terre, Italy – Canon G6

Scotland’s Northern Coast

Scottish Clouds and Rain

After our brief photo and bathroom stop it was back into the bus. Energized by the damp crispness in the air we wound through stunning countryside cloaked in rolling wisp like clouds and decorated by the rich, green layered mixture of plants and grasses that give peat its dense nature.

Valley Vista During Lunch in Scotland

A relatively short drive up the road we stopped at a small overlook. There, after choosing choice seats with stunning views of the valley as it stretched out below us, we settled in and ate our picnic lunches which we’d purchased at the Tesco earlier in the day. For Nate and I it was a delicious, albeit terribly messy, rotisserie chicken, bag of fresh raw peas, baby corn and macaroni salad. Somehow we’d managed to forget to purchase a fork, leaving fingers, fingers, and more fingers. Needless to say, with spaghetti sauce stained fingers and chicken juice running down our chins we were in heaven.

Traveling Dance Lift

Full, we took in the sites and as I recorded a bit of video Nate hoisted Elena – the Russian member of our tour – up onto his shoulder for a quick ballroom inspired lift/photo opportunity.

Smoo Cave in Scotland

Recharged and energized we struck off along the coast and eventually arrived at Smoo Cave. An odd formation, which seems to have been formed by a combination of oceanic erosion, wind and river erosion from the small stream that carved its way underground.

Smoo Cave Looking Out in Scotland

The cave’s mouth was massive. A large gaping entrance into a cavernous entrance area.

Smoo Cave hole in Ceiling

With a lone hole in the cave’s ceiling, small raindrops and light streaming through from above and green, moss covered walls – the entire place was spectacular.

Smoo Cave walls and water

As water streamed out through a small opening deep within the cave we paused and watched as damp tourists made their way over the small bridge and across the small stream – which was seemingly flowing out of the side of the cave wall.

Smoo Cave

Only to return – drenched – mere seconds later. Eager to partake, I zipped up my rain jacket, pulled my hood down tightly over my head and set into the breach in the cave wall. The sound and vibration of crashing water was deafening. The wooden platform which stretched into the small side channel of the cave quickly ended in a railing, leaving me standing face to face with a giant waterfall as it thundered into the cave from above. A raging, swollen torrent made fierce by the afternoon’s steady rainfall.

Smoo Cave Entrance Scotland

After filming a quick video, pausing to take in the downpour and reflecting on what I was seeing and experiencing I bowed my head, turned my back and carefully made my way down the slick wooden walkway and back out into the main cavern. I was drenched. It was worth it.

Cliff Tops Outside Smoo Cave

Eager to explore further we wound up steep steps to the top of the near bye cliffs and made our way along the cliff top out towards the open ocean. With a thick grass/peat layer covering the tops of the coastal hills and sharp, jagged, rugged rocks fending off the beating waves below – we meandered along the coast enjoying its incredible natural beauty and majesty.

Northern Scottish Coast

Though I could have easily paused and read for a while, time was of the essence and a light rain had begun to fall. Legs pumping I sprinted back towards the Bus and hoped I wasn’t the last to return.

Smoo Cave Waterfall

To my relief we still had a short while before moving on to the next location – which gave me time to explore the top of the waterfall I’d seen in the cave. It had carved two holes in the cave’s roof. The higher of which was where the water currently fed into the cave. Which turned the lower of the two (pictured above) as a window of sorts. Offering a view of the top of the waterfall as it dove down into Smoo Cave below.

Scottish Highlands

From Smoo Cave it was back inland and up between majestic bald mountains crowed with sharp crumbling rocks and steep cliff faces. As we wound along pristine roads through fog, light rain and dry patches we could not help but marvel.

Highland Road Winding into Scotland

At one point we spotted a mound of cut peat a ways back from the main road. We paused along the side of the road as our guide sprinted to the cut and piled peat for a small piece to show us. As he sprinted across the grasslands, I paused and enjoyed the above shot as the road wound through the grasslands and vanished into the fog. Truly a magical place – one that brought fairy-tales to life – seemingly as careless accidents.

Rusted Dumptruck

With 7:00 quickly approaching, we raced across the 2nd to last leg of our day’s voyage – the ferry to the Orkney Isles.

View Larger Map

We arrived at the ferry landing with ample time to get out, stretch our legs and take in our surroundings. A small, industrial dock the area was anything but attractive. With an old, rusted out dump truck playing the role of flowerpot, we stretched our legs before watching Martin back the 16 person min-bus onto the ferry. More than a little impressed we carefully slithered out of the Bus and wound our way through the tightly packed cars, vans, campers and trucks that were sardine’d into the parking level. A smaller open air ferry we wound up to the top deck and enjoyed the crisp ocean air.

Ferry Trip to the Orkney Islands

Though slightly cool, the air was incredible. With our hair being tussled by the ocean’s breeze we strained our eyes watching for seals, dolphins or other sea life. All the while enjoying the lazy northerly sunset (if you can call it that), as the sun slowly made its way towards the horizon.

Lighthouse Orkney Islands

The trip took about an hour and wound between several smaller islands. Some were decorated by beautiful, picturesque farm homes, while others were barren except for the occasional light house, or left over pillbox and military fortifications from the 2nd world war.

St. Margarets Hope in the Orkney Islands

Eventually we rounded the northern tip of one of the Islands and were greeted be a beautiful, quaint island town. Picturesque and framed beautifully by the setting sun the ferry drifted up to the quay. Eager to begin preparing dinner, we made the quick 3 minute drive into town and the hostel we’d be spending the following two evenings at.

St Margarets Hope at Night

We quickly set to cooking a delicious seafood dinner before migrating next door to a small pub for a few games of pool, several pints and round after round of delightful stories. Tired, but not ready for bed I wandered outside to explore the town briefly before finding my way back to the hostel common area where I settled in with Paul the Irishman, Martin our guide and my brother for a few more beers and a batch of hilarious stories that left us laughing until our cheeks hurt.

St Margarets Hope Orkney Islands

On that note, I’ll leave you until tomorrow. Any questions or comments? Just enjoyed reading the post? Please don’t hesitate to leave a comment below. I love your feedback!

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