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.
*A special thank you to www.carrentals.co.uk who partially sponsored my car rental and helped make this trip possible.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
View from the road during a quick stop on the way to Unapool.
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.
The view became even more impressive as a series of clouds rolled in at the far end of the Fijord.
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.