Loch Maree to Cape Wrath / Balnakeil to Noss Head / Wick to North Kessock


TongueThe Scottish area called Highland used to be three separate counties, Ross-shire, Sutherland and Caithness. The northern coasts offers a rich variety of scenery, from tall storm swept cliffs to gentle sandy bays where fishing boats shelter in the area's many harbours.

Inland, the moorland's rich plant and animal life are protected by numerous nature reserves.


ROSS & CROMARTY


County shield Ross-shire and Cromartyshire are so intermingled they are usually treated as one county. The area stretches from Kyle of Lochalsh to Lochinver on the west coast and from the Black Isle to the Dornoch Firth on the east. The names are from the Gaelic: Ross meaning ‘the high, upsurging rocky moorland where nothing will grow’; Cromarty meaning ‘a promontory or bay with a crooked coastline’.

CromartyThe west coast is a wonderful mixture of sea lochs and offshore islands and the east has lovely firths often filled with North Sea oil rigs. Inland there are granite mountains divided by great glens and beautiful lochs. Savagely depopulated during the Highland Clearances, it is now virtually devoid of people and there is little agriculture and very few small towns.

Our van on the A9We spent two weeks touring this part of the coast in a motorhome with our son Richard. We have been up here several times before but it was Rich’s first visit. It is an understatement to say how impressed he was by the stunning scenery.

AsssyntAs much of this remote area has ‘interesting’ single track roads, we realised the van would be useless to reach many of the more isolated places, so we stayed at a nice campsite in Ullapool and hired a car.



Loch Maree


Loch MareeThis is one of the most attractive of Scotland’s freshwater lochs, with densely wooded islands. At the south-western end we arrived at the wilderness of Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, whose ancient pinewoods are home to pine martens and wildcats.

Beinn EighteWe stopped at the visitor centre and I got a map of the woodland trail. It looked pretty easy and we started climbing the path up through weird trees that were pretty photogenic. At the top the view was lovely and we put the camera on the cairn so we could take a picture of all of us.

Victoria FallsOn the road to Gairloch, we stopped at a waterfall that was admired by Queen Victoria when she stayed in the area in 1877 and was thus named after her. This is a very pretty spot and there are viewing platforms erected to get the best views.



Badachro and Redpoint


BadachroWe turned off on a small road towards Shieldaig and found a nice pub at Badachro where we got out of the rain. They had thoughtfully provided albums of photos of the area including pictures of last winter’s devastating storms which caused a lot of damage and a family to be washed out to sea.Redpoint

Further on there is a sandy beach at Opinan and at Redpoint there are spectacular views across to Skye. It is possible to take a path over magnificent sands for 9 miles back to Diabaig.



Gairloch


Gairloch Gairloch pierThe Victorians used to travel by steamer to this resort with it’s long sandy beach. Now there is a golf course and sea angling trips can be taken from the pier, situated at Charlestown.

Heritage museum We visited the Gairloch Heritage Museum which has an excellent local record of life in the area from pre-history to the present day. There is one of the largest lenses assembled by the Northern Lighthouse Board and reconstructions of a croft and a schoolroom. Outside are two locally built fishing boats.

wilderness storeWe also stopped at an interesting wilderness store so Andy could add to his collection of hats!

 



Rubha Reidh


HebridesSkye from GairlochWe decided to take the road past Big Sand which is popular with watersports enthusiasts.

The ‘B’ road ends at Melvaig and follows a private road north along a clifftop route with stunning views to the Outer Hebrides and Skye. This tested our driving ability with sharp rises around the twisting route often leading to blind summits.

Rubha Reidh lighthouseSeveral miles later, the track ends at the Rubha Reidh lighthouse, which now belongs to a holiday activity centre. We could see the Outer Hebrides from here.

We took a deep breath and drove back for a well earned cup of tea in the Myrtle Bank Hotel, overlooking the bay at Gairloch..



Poolewe


PooleweThis little village has hotels, restaurants and a small indoor swimming pool. We followed a minor road north along the western shore of Loch Ewe to superb pink sandy beaches at Mellangaun, where a few touring caravans looked forlorn on the shore in the rain.

Rubha nan SasanContinuing to Rubha nan Sasan, we found a strange rocky headland where World War ll gun emplacements once protected the Atlantic convoys that gathered in the loch. These ruins were fenced off with notices warning of dangerous buildings and I was surprised they had not been demolished long since.

Russian memorial There is a memorial from the Russians who formed part of those convoys, so I guess the buildings will remain as part of history.

We spent some time at Inverewe Gardens and were extremely lucky to see it on a gorgeous sunny day. The Gaelic name of the peninsula was Am Ploc Ard, meaning "the high lump".

Inverewe Gardens There was no decent soil and it was exposed to gales from the Atlantic when Osgood Mackenzie took it over in 1862 . He had soil carried in by basket and vast numbers of trees were planted for shelter so that it eventually became this gorgeous garden.

Inverewe Gardens quayThe gardens are now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and are criss-crossed by a maze of paths. There is a particularly nice walled terrace that was reclaimed from the beach of Loch Ewe and a small jetty is hidden round the other side where there are magnificent views across the loch.

Isle of EweFrom Autbea there is a superb view of the Isle of Ewe, situated in the loch and on to the mountains in the distance. We kept stopping as we took the A832 across the peninsula to Gruinard Bay for even more stunning views.



Gruinard Bay


Laide chapelAt Laide, on the bay's western shore, is a tiny ruined chapel said to have been founded by St Columba in the 7th century although the present building dates from the early 18th century. Nearby is a cave that was long used as a place of worship.

Mellon UdrigleA minor road from Laide leads north to a wide beach of pure white sands at Mellon Udrigle. Halfway along, by Loch na Beiste, a track heads west for 3 miles to the ruined village of Slaggan.

viewpoint on Gruinard HillAt a viewpoint on Gruinard Hill, we stopped to take pictures of the coves and sandy beaches. The largest beach, on the southern side of the bay, has pink sands formed of red sandstone. It is popular with canoeists and also home to colonies of black-throated divers and porpoises.

Gruinard IslandIn the middle of the bay is the privately owned Gruinard Island. This was used for experiments in germ warfare during World War II, when it was contaminated with anthrax. The island has now undergone decontamination and is considered safe but access is still prohibited.



Little Loch Broom


Ardessie waterfallThe massive crags of An Teallach tower above the loch's southern shore. We passed Ardessie, where a series of waterfalls fall from a mountain stream.

DundonnellWe stopped for petrol at Dundonnell, at the head of the loch where an RAF helicopter had just rescued some climbers.

Around the remote northern shore of the loch, at the small village of Badrallach, a path leads to Scoraig, an 'alternative' community that relies on windmills for its power supply.



Corrieshalloch Gorge


Corrieshalloch GorgeThe ‘A’ road heads inland to this beautiful gorge, where a gently swaying suspension bridge spanning the River Droma hangs over the Falls of Measach. These falls thunder down 200ft into a narrow mile-long chasm.

Viewing platformThe National Trust for Scotland have erected a viewing platform, which holds no more than two people. We took it in turns to peer down on ferns and mosses sprouting from the sheer rock walls of the gorge below.

Suspension bridgeIt was certainly a stunning site. A short walk took us to the bridge which crossed right next to the waterfall. It was a bit scary looking down.



Ullapool


UllapoolThis is an idyllic town, overlooking Loch Broom, with a beautiful harbour backed by a row of shops and whitewashed cottages. The town was established in 1788 by Thomas Telford and the British Fisheries Society as a herring port and curing station. Despite a major slump in the herring industry, fishing still continues around Ullapool and in winter, factory ships from eastern Europe anchor in Loch Broom to buy the local catch.

We spent a glorious summer’s evening watching a large fishing boat load up with empty crates before departing and I took some wonderful shots of the colourful boats in the harbour. We got an awesome Indian meal to take back to our van for supper and watched a golden sunset.

Fishing BoatUllapool HarbourOur takeawayUllapool sunset

Caledonian Macbrayne run a car ferry to Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis from here. I remember our arrival several years back, from a Hebridean trip that involved a Sunday on Lewis where everything was closed. This time our van was parked beside the loch and everytime the ‘Isle of Lewis’ sailed by, I shot out to take pictures. While we were there, two other large cruise vessels arrived and moored in the harbour.

Ferry signs'Isle of Lewis'campsiteour hire car

We stayed for a couple of days and hired a car to tackle the mad single track roads of the north west.



Achiltibuie


Ben More Coigch A beautiful morning but it became cloudy and we watched as the cloud ‘ate’ Ben More Coigch.

AchnahairdToday, we drove north to tackle the roads of Assynt. We turned onto a small road along Loch Lurgann with the strange shapes of Cul Beag and Stac Pollaidh looming above. Stac Pollaidh means "peak of the peat moss", and is 2009ft high.

Summer islesWe drove about 15 miles of fairly hilly and twisting road to a deserted road junction with a colourful road sign and a post box.

We turned left to Achiltibuie, a place that overlooks the uninhabited Summer Isles. These comprise Tanera Mor, Tanera Beag and several smaller islands but permanent inhabitants left in 1881. You can get cruises around the islands from here.

HydroponicumIn the village is an experimental complex of glasshouses, the Hydroponicum, where vegetables and flowers are grown without soil. We had a guided tour to ourselves and were staggered by the range of produce, including bananas, oranges and figs. There is a café set beside a lily pond where we ate home grown strawberries.

HydroponicumHydroponicum

AchnahairdSomehow we missed the road to the Achiltibuie Smokehouse, where you can see fish and other products being cured and didn’t see the secluded harbour of Old Dornie.

Back at the post box at Achnahaird, we saw an enormous sandy beach with camp sites and chalets before attempting the ‘Mad road’ towards Lochinver.



The Mad Road of Sutherland


Mad roadEnard BayThis is the ‘real’ north west as it used to be before new roads were blasted through the rocks - and it's wonderful.

There are signs at either end of this road warning that it is unsuitable for caravans, so we agreed we had taken a good decision to hire the car. Even so, it was quite an effort to drive but the views of the coast were as breathtaking as many of the bends.

At the northern end of Enard Bay, we crossed a bridge at Inverkerkaig and drove into Sutherland for a change of driver.



SUTHERLAND


Sutherland sceneFirst recorded in 1040 as Sudrland, this county is isolated with a savage landscape of mountains and wonderful coastal scenery. Mostly bog and heath, there is very little cultivation and a sparse population and the Highland Clearances are still marked by roofless crofts.

The county is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, with Caithness cutting off its north eastern corner. The moorland is covered in heather that provides food for deer but is also notorious for midges.



Inverkirkaig


Falls of KirkaigInverkirkaig is a crofting village on a sand and shingle bay and a short walk follows the river to the Falls of Kirkaig on the slopes of Suilven, one of Sutherland's most dramatic mountains.

BookshopThere is a large car park beside the river and surprisingly, here in the middle of nowhere is a bookshop! We couldn’t resist and found that there was even a coffee shop.



Lochinver


highland soldierWe continued on a slightly better part of the road to Assynt's largest village, Lochinver. It was raining by now so we headed for the modern building housing the tourist information centre where there were some nice wild life exhibitions.

LochinverThe main street runs along the eastern end of Loch Inver, with a few small shops and a war memorial topped by a the statue of a highland soldier.

At the southern end the imposing Lochinver Hotel overlooks the modern fishing harbour. Boats regularly land their catches for sale at the evening fish market and there was a large Customs and Excise ship moored there.

Canisp and SuilvenLochinver is overlooked by the two peaks of Canisp and Suilven, the latter having sheer sides in the shape of a bell.

Highland Stoneware PotteryAt Baddidarach, there is the Highland Stoneware Pottery with a large modern shop and the pottery itself where you can watch the stoneware being made.



North Assynt


single track roadWe bought some food for a picnic and continued north around the coast road of Assynt along yet another "sporting" single track road. The first 3 miles were especially difficult, twisting around the sides of cliffs with sheer drops below. On this road there are blind summits which really are blind. This drive is NOT to be missed!

North AssyntUnusually for a Highland estate, North Assynt is owned by local crofters who run it as a cooperative enterprise.

We were lucky that the only traffic we passed were a couple of cars and the ‘mobile bank’. Crash barriers have been erected which made it seem less hazardous, but it does rather spoil the magnificence of this bare rocky wilderness, comprised of hard grey and white striped Lewisian Gneiss.



Achmelvich


Clachtoll BeachThe road twisted down to a collection of stunning beaches of white sand amongst rocky bays. It was a bit cloudy when we reached Clachtoll Beach, but when we stopped we found some picnic tables and It was just warm enough to sit out for our lunch.

Fishing BothyThis must be the remotest place for a caravan park that I have seen and I surmised that the road north must be wider to have got them here.

We had a look inside the fishing bothy which is part of an old salmon station and there were some posts used for net drying. The small "Hermit's Castle" on a rocky headland was built of concrete in 1950 but has been abandoned.

Monument to Rev Norman MacleodThere is also a monument to the Rev. Norman Macleod who led his people to Nova Scotia, Australia and then New Zealand in the 1800s. Bit of a tourist then!



Clashnessie Bay


Clashnessie BayOld Man of StoerOn again to the pink sands of Clashnessie Bay from where a lane leads to the lighthouse on the sandstone cliffs at Stoer Point.

The Old Man of Stoer is a 200ft sandstone pinnacle. Apparently, climbers, laden with all their kit, swim out to scale it. Now that's keen.

Road aheadAhead, we could see the long road for miles, travelling through an area of low hillocks dotted with numerous lochs and lochans.

DrumbegWe stopped again at a viewpoint at Drumbeg, near a small tea shop and then the bends in the road got even steeper and more frequent. It was quite exciting and the views were stunning.




Loch Assynt


As we were staying in Ullapool, we drove back on the A835, passing the Inchnadamph National Nature Reserve with limestone caves thought to have sheltered hunters 9000 years ago.

Ardvreck CastleKnockan Visitor CentreArdvreck Castle overlooks the long loch, built by the MacLeods in the 16th century and seized by the MacKenzies in 1695. It was covered in scaffolding as it is now undergoing restoration with funds from the heritage lottery fund. Near the castle is a Stone Age chambered tomb.

The sandstone peaks of Cixl Mor, Cixl Beag and Stac Pollaidh offer challenging ascents to rock-climbers and we stopped at Knockan Visitor Centre, where trails explore the complex geology. Knockan Cliff is a site that revolutionised Victorian ideas of how mountain ranges were formed.



Kylesku


Kylesku BridgeOld slipwayThe next day we were back in the motorhome travelling to Kylesku Bridge. This spans the narrows of Loch a' Chairn Bhain and is one of the most beautiful examples of bridge design anywhere in the world. It has a curved design, set against the stunning scenery of Sutherland.

The original Kylesku ferry was a rowing boat, introduced in the early 1800s to avoid a massive 100 mile detour inland. A small car ferry first appeared between the wars and it was only in 1975 that the Maid of Glencoul appeared as the first roll-on roll-off ferry that was capable of taking fully loaded commercial vehicles. The bridge was opened in 1984 by the Queen and there is a plaque in the viewing area celebrating this.

Commemoration cairnEas a’Chual Aluinn waterfallDuring World War II the loch was a training area for midget submarines and there is a cairn to commemorate the formation of the XII Submarine Flotilla, which trained in "these wild and beautiful waters".

In summer, you can get a boat from here to view the spectacular Eas a’Chual Aluinn waterfall which is four times the height of the Niagara Falls, with a drop of 650 ft. You can also catch a boat to view the remote Kerrachar Gardens at the seaward end of the loch.



Scourie


Loch a'MhuilinnLoch a'MhuilinnThe road travels through the Loch a'Mhuilinn National Nature Reserve, the northernmost remnant of native oak woodland. We reached the sea again at Badcall where a large fish farm is built in the bay.

ScourieScourie is sparsely populated and a place for tourists with hotels and a campsite. The wild and rocky shoreline can be explored on foot or by boat trips from the harbour.



Handa Island Nature Reserve


Laxford BraesWe passed some amazing rock formations in the road cuttings. These are folded Lewisian gneisses - known as the Laxford Braes.

Laxford BraesHalf way to Laxford Bridge is a minor road with few passing places, that leads through one of the last wildernesses in Scotland. As we no longer had the hire car, we had to defer this for another time. There is a loop of road with three tiny settlements, Foindle, Fanagmore, and Tarbet.

Ferry to HandaTarbet is the terminus for the ferry to Handa Island where many species of birds can be seen, including puffins, razorbills, skuas, kittiwakes, terns and guillemots, all nesting on three sides of the steep sandstone cliffs.

In 1841, Handa Island was home to 65 people and even had it's own Queen and parliament. They migrated to Canada in 1848 because of the potato famine and the island has been uninhabited since. Handa rises to a height of 400ft and measures about a mile by a mile and a half. It is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is run as a nature reserve by the Scottish Wildlife Trust.



Kinlochbervie


Kinlochbervie At Rhiconich the road north becomes single track but because Kinlochbervie has become one of the major fishing ports in Scotland, road here has been improved.

The small village of Kinlochbervie has an impressive modern harbour and fish handling depot built in 1988. It isn’t a very attractive place and comes as rather a surprise when you are used to the picturesque harbours of this coast. Even so, the surrounding scenery is still spectacular. OldshoremoreFishing boats land their catches and then the fish are taken away in large refrigerated lorries.

Most visitors pass through when they are on their way to Oldshoremore and Sandwood Bay, wide sandy bays backed by rolling grassland, with stunning views along the coast. We once stopped at a campsite at Blairmore, where the road comes to an end.



Sandwood Bay


Sandwood BayThere is a 4 mile track from Blairmore across deserted peat and heather to a mile-long stretch of pink sands and grassy dunes. The bay is unspoit as it is so remote.

A sea stack known as Am Buachaille rises sheer out of the water and the only people who venture further are intrepid walkers on their way to Cape Wrath, which will take another eight hours.



Cape Wrath


Keoldale Scotland's north-western tip is aptly named although the name actually derives from the Norse word hwarf, meaning 'turning place'. Viking ships used it as a navigation point during their raids on the Scottish west coast.

We stopped at Keoldale at the bottom of the Kyle of Durness and had to use the small passenger ferry to get across to the 100 square mile wilderness known as The Parbh. cAPE wRATH LIGHTHOUSEThe cliffs and a 14 mile track to the Cape lie within a Ministry of Defence bombing range, and restrictions to access apply. The ferry connects with a minibus that makes the trip across the rugged landscape to the lighthouse.

Andy at Cape wRATHThe lighthouse was built by Robert Stephenson in 1827 and stands more than 121 meters above sea level on a rocky windswept headland, battered by raging seas. Slightly to the east and overlooking the lighthouse are the ruins of Lloyds buildings, which were constructed by the famous insurance company as a coastguard station.

To the east, the highest cliffs on the British mainland rise to 920 ft at Clo Mor, which means ‘Great Web’ and has immense bird colonies.


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