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.
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.…
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.…
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.
Jump to Part I and Part III of my road trip as I leave behind Skye and strike northward along Scotland’s rugged western coast.
*A special thank you to www.carrentals.co.uk who partially sponsored my car rental and helped make this trip possible.
I discovered these flowers covered in fresh raindrops just after a Scottish drizzle raced across the small village of Durness in Scotland’s far north western reaches. The vibrantly colored flowers were in a small garden beside the road and I found myself separated from them by an ancient stone fence. As I paused to snap this quick shot, I was forced to continually keep one eye on the flowers and the other on the small single lane country road that hopped over a small hill, turned a corner, and then raced along the coast with only a few feet on either side to spare. Far from ideal, but never the less it did add a bit of excitement to an otherwise peaceful moment!
Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.
Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.
Located along Scotland’s A82 a few miles before the world famous Glen Coe are a series of small lakes. These lakes rest in the open, surrounded by a few hearty trees that stand as silent sentinels braving the area’s brutal winters, unpredictable weather and near-constant winds. These pools rest as beautiful oases in the midst of highland grasslands ringed by the imposing figure of the nearby glens.
As I made my way towards Glen Coe a few hours before sunset I found myself chasing small patches of blue sky glimpsed amidst movie-perfect cotton-ball clouds. The road slowly wound between hills before spilling out into the near-treeless flat lands and as I crested a final hill, I found myself greeted by vivid reflections in the still waters of the highland lochs. Enthralled by the sight, I quickly pulled my sky blue Volkswagen Beetle Coup to the side of the road and strolled across the squishy peat, careful to step around small clumps of blooming heather. I found a small path which led me to the water’s edge, where I snapped this shot of the cloud’s reflection visible in the still waters of Lochan na h-Achlaise. The mountains in the background are the little siblings of the mighty brutes which famously make up Glen Coe and have been featured in movies and songs for generations.
It was a magical moment, one that embodied the ethereal spirit of the Scottish Highlands – a place where nature’s raw and primitive beauty is pervasive.
Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.
Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.
It is no secret that Scotland is one of my favorite places in Europe. Perhaps it is because I’m a child of the Colorado Rockies, or perhaps it is solely the pure rawness and majestic glory of Scotland. A large part of the discussion about Scotland revolves around the Scottish highlands, and they are without question worth every ounce of praise they receive. That being said, it is Scotland as a whole which is a wealth of incredible cliffs, wondrous lochs, and gorgeous glens.
This particular shot was taken en route between Scotland’s famous Glen Coe and its equally famous and picturesque Eilean Donan Castle. I love it because it highlights the raw beauty, and incredible light that defines the Scottish Highlands. The true brilliance of Scotland as a destination is that it is, as a whole, a destination. Far too often a nation’s wonders, natural beauty and charm are relegated to a few small areas inundated with tourists and cheesy shops. With Scotland, breathtaking moments like this are everywhere. The challenge is less a matter of finding them and more a matter of battling the weather long enough that it breaks. Yet, even the surly Scottish weather is part of the country’s deep charm. It provides grand vistas, beautiful waterfalls and perpetual change set to an ancient natural backdrop.
Scotland is a must visit and somewhere I hope each and every one of you find your way to. Just be forewarned. One visit is almost never enough.
Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here.
This post was made possible in part by Sykes Cottages who provide a wide selection of self-catering holiday cottages.
Located in the heart of Scotland, this wonderful lake and overlook draws tourists in part because its shape mirrors a map of Scotland. Each time I visit Scotland I find my way back to it – Loch Garry. During a trip this past August, however, I got a very special view. The clouds were mixed and created a beautifully lit backdrop while a light, warm, summer rain fell. As those who have spent time in Scotland are aware, these rains seldom last for more than a few minutes. In this black and white photo, you can see the rain drops, which I think gives the whole image a pencil-drawingish feel.
Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The cave’s mouth was massive. A large gaping entrance into a cavernous entrance area.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
With 7:00 quickly approaching, we raced across the 2nd to last leg of our day’s voyage – the ferry to the Orkney Isles.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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