Highlands, Wester Ross,  Sutherland, Caithness




beautiful Scottish scenery

makes for

Scottish lochs

Just one hour after dropping off Rob at his B&B, we turned into the main street of Fort Augustus.  We were surprised to see a series of locks leading down from the Caledonian Canal to Loch Ness.  There was quite a crowd on either side of the lock looking down on a ship with a couple of huge masts, it was lying so low in the lock we really couldn’t see what sort of yacht it was.  So we quickly found a parking place and walked back to join the crowd.  There are several canals linking Loch Linnhe  (sea water loch from the Firth of Lorne ) on the western side, Loch Lochy in the centre and the huge Loch Ness on the eastern side which flows into the North Sea.  Having this navigable waterway means seafaring vessels can go from one side of Scotland to the other, without having to sail through the dangerous waters between the mainland and the Orkney Islands.   Anyway,  what a beautiful sailing vessel it was!  A Baltic Trader was slowly making its way down the five locks.  We noticed a family with young children on board and thought “Lucky them!”, thinking they were the rightful occupants, it wasn’t until they completed the journey through the next set of gates that we saw that family thank the skipper and jump back on land.  By this time, Dennis had struck up a conversation with the man behind the wheel and the lady walking alongside with one of the ropes had begun a conversation with me.  Next thing we knew, we had been invited on board for a look around, a little bit of sailing through the rest of the locks and a bottle of wine down below!  Wow, now we were the ones envied by the crowds!  Once we were through the locks, the skipper had to tie up between two other much smaller fizz boats along the loch jetty and you should have seen the faces of their occupants when this huge ship slipped in between them, with barely enough room.  They weren’t aware that we had bow thrusters that allowed Malcolm to be very precise!  Malcolm, Alison and Iona their daughter were so lovely and interested to hear all about our travels.  They had great stories to tell as well, especially about Malcolm’s business.  He is part owner of a company that surveys the sea floor around the world for various clients.  They also specialise in selling ROV’s (Remotely Operated Vehicles for exploring the sea floor at great depth).  Just recently the company had been working around The Chathams and Tonga , looking for phosphate nodules on the sea bed.  He was very familiar with Wellington as their ship had been tied up by the Interisland Ferries for some time, for provisioning.  In the past they had been involved with searching for and then mapping the Titanic.  It was their video of that doomed ship we had watched in fascination at the Titanic Experience museum in Belfast. The Baltic trader was not only for pleasure; they had been out sailing around Skye and the following weekend planned to go out to The Minch (the sea separating the Isle of Lewis and the mainland) looking  for dolphins but they also used it for entertaining their clients in an unusual setting.  It could sail comfortably with at least 20 people on board. We imagine that they were probably fabulously wealthy but they were so down to earth and welcoming, very hospitable and happy to listen to us as well!    We had a great time.   Malcolm is a keen folk singer and he got out his guitar and gave us a rendition of  “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” written by Eric Bogle (that famous Aussie ballad) when he heard that we planned to go to Gallipoli, to visit Dennis’ Great-Uncle Henry’s grave.   It reduced both Dennis and myself to tears listening to him, it’s such a poignant song and also it made us homesick!   Sorry, Rob, that you missed this highlight – not the tears, the ship!

Our first glimpse of this beautiful Baltic Trader, making its way through the lock system

The grand old lady was built in 1891

Standing on the stern looking back up the lock system

This is very upmarket compared with our motorhome!

As “our” yacht was so tall we had to wait until the road bridge moved aside before motoring on down into Loch Ness

What hospitable and generous people!

We decided to eat our dinner outside on such a lovely evening but it was short-lived, as the thing that most scares English people about Scotland finally became a reality and not just a myth!  People had warned us while back in England that “whatever you do, don’t go through the western side of Scotland in August!  The midges will drive you mad!  There are black clouds of them and they bite!”   Up until now the Scottish people reassured us that the weather was too dry for them this year, they liked it when it was just about to rain.   Well, they arrived this particular dinner time and proved to be awful!  They are so small, probably a quarter the size of a NZ sandfly but they do bite and have a nasty habit of landing in awkward places, e.g. the line of skin just under the arms of my glasses, I had to remove the glasses, scratch them away, replace the glasses, sigh, remove the glasses, scratch them away, replace the glasses, etc!  Another favourite landing-place is inside the odd folds in your ears!   After all the excitement, we simply parked a few minutes up the road on the side of Loch Ness and watched a fisherman unsuccessfully lure trout.    He was wise though, as he was wearing a thin, gauze-cum-netting, shaped like a long sausage that he draped over his head and which fell down to his shoulders!   A perfect anti-midge protection system.  

Where we slept beside Loch Ness, with no problems from water monsters

This fisherman has the anti-midge netting tucked up in the form of a hat.

The little washer woman working away in one of the many fresh water lochs, the large rocks were so warm the washing dried very quickly.

Next morning we decided to go back towards the western coastline again so travelled up alongside Loch Ness for another 20 miles or so and then headed inland.  There’s a huge range of mountains right in the middle of the country here with no roads running east to west, so we had to travel north for a while then turn south at Achnasheen and keep going until  we saw the sea again.   All along this route there were many small lochs and we often noticed small hydroelectric power stations along the way.   We stop off here and there for smoko  or lunch in one of the many carparks at the side of the road that are provided for trampers and ramblers.  In England, all these carparks have a Pay & Display regime for parking but surprisingly in Scotland they are more friendly and actually welcome people to use the facilities provided.  One such stop was at Rogie Falls, so after refreshing ourselves we took a wander to see the spectacle.  We walked through a forest of silver birches which was beautiful and we were thrilled to stand and  watch as the salmon tried to make their way up the waterfall!  A water ladder had been provided for them for when the river is running low, that’s a man-made series of pools in steps, off to the side of the main river, to make sure they make it to their spawning grounds.

We saw salmon trying their best at travelling upstream but I was too slow to catch them with my camera.

There are ruined castles everywhere in Scotland

The way we travel, with no idea really of what is ahead, you come across some surprising and interesting things.  We just point to a place on the map that doesn’t look too far away and head in that direction, hoping to find suitable level parking for the night.  We came across a sign at the beginning of a particular road that told us that this road was closed through winter and then gave a list of vehicle types that it wasn’t suitable for.   They never mentioned motorhomes so the intrepid Dennis proceeded!  It turned out to be the most beautiful scenic route you could ever imagine but it was so steep!  We climbed to 650 metres from sea level, which isn’t that high, I guess, but boy was it hard going!  This height gain was in probably no more than five km’s  ( As a guide, the Rimutaka Hill at home is 555m high.) Once again it was a one lane road with passing places at regular intervals.  No one had taught the drivers coming down the mountain that it really is a good idea to give those travelling up right of way and quite a few times our van’s wheels were skidding before we got enough traction to get moving again!  Not for the faint-hearted, I can assure you.  Even though I took heaps of photos at various intervals, it is hard to convey the gradient of the road.  Dennis had to admit in the end that was the steepest road he had ever driven over!   But it was well worth it, not only for the view but also the cute wee village on the other side. 

The road to Applecross had a sign at the beginning to warn you it was not suitable for caravans or large trucks. Dennis reasoned that we wee neither so he proceeded with confidence!  The road is called Bealach na Ba in Gaelic (‘Pass of the Cattle’) and is Scotland’s steepest.

Photos don’t really give you the sense of the steepness of this road, it was magnificent.

Applecross proved to be full of history as well!    It is home to 238 people and can only be accessed by two roads, so it is such a peaceful haven.  This time we parked on the grass strip next to a beach for the night and Dennis was very impressed to see a Heritage Centre and an old Church just over the road and thought something must be special about this.  And so it was.  This site was where Christianity was introduced to the Picts in Scotland.  St. Maelrubha came over from Ireland and he established a monastery at Applecross in 673AD.  He lived the rest of his life here (dying at 80) and is buried within the Church grounds.  The Church today dates back from 1817, the only thing remaining from the original times is a huge stone slab with a celtic cross carved into it.

Weird little sand formations at low tide in Applecross

Beautiful, but I don’t know what it’s called or what it morphs into

Out of all the elaborate churches we have been in this simple one at Applecross is actually my favourite

The most interesting thing at the Heritage Centre, in my opinion, was this fishing float. It’s made of a sheep’s stomach and the fisherman just had to blow it up before using….

You could just make out the carved Celtic Cross on this 2600 year old slab of stone!

While driving these narrow, winding roads we came across a group of cyclists and had to wait sometime before we were able to pass them safely.  When we did manage to pass, all of a sudden one of them started shouting and yelling and pumped the air with his fist!  Turned out he was a Kiwi and was very enthused when saw the NZ flag fluttering on our aerial!   We ended up having quite a conversation with him at cycling speed, Jeremy from Rangiora was one of the owners of a bicycle touring company.  He was guiding 12 paying clients around western Scotland and his mate was in a van carrying all the gourmet food for smoko and lunches, luggage and towing a rack for the bikes.  At day’s end they bedded down in pubs or B&B’s.  We met them again in Sheildag when strolling around the village in the evening.   Sheildag authorities were keen to invite motorhomes and campers and even provided a camping site for the price of a donation, in the centre of town!  Excellent.  We met another Kiwi at the camping site, also flying the flag.  They were from Nelson and were touring Britain and Scotland for three months.  They had hired a motorhome, though not a self-contained one (i.e. no bathroom on board) for $NZ88/day!!  That made me feel even better about the great economics of our van.  

Midges were again a problem here, as soon as the sun went down out they came and shooed us back inside.  They get up your nose and you find yourself swallowing them!! 

Dennis was quite tickled with a car bumper sticker and it’s now his motto – “Adventure before Dementia!”

Although they are tiny midges are so annoying!

Jeremy’s trailer loaded up for the evening


These tinyvillages are so cute, this one is Sheildag, where we meet two other Kiwis

A relic from the Spanish Armada, 1588, sitting on the foreshore at Sheildag but retrieved from the bay

Ullapool is a beautiful little seaside town, with a great harbour and they have a Library with free WiFi!  We hadn’t been able to use our dongle to get Internet connection for three days now and I was experiencing withdrawal symptoms.  We noticed a sign in the Information Centre advertising the local Sailing Club.  For the princely sum of $NZ20 each we could join the crew for the following afternoon!   This opportunity was worth staying an extra day for so when we found an abandoned hotel complex, where we could park for free, this sealed the deal.   Unfortunately, although we arrived at the correct place at the correct time, nobody else did!  Not even the yacht!  They had a community rowing competition further along the beach so perhaps all the yatchies were there and they had forgotten to put up a sign to alert us that Saturday’s sailing was off for the day.  What a disappointment as the day would have been perfect for a sail.

What a pity Ullapool Yacht Club failed on their promise


The next few days we were driving through a GeoPark, which we had never heard of before.  A GeoPark is given to an area with many notable geological features (caves, important or unique rock formations, etc) by UNESCO.    This country reminded us of Central Otago with its wide valleys between mountains either side, only much greener.  These roads were full of tourist buses from Spain and the Czech Republic, which sped along at a great rate of knots.  We would pass them parked alongside an area with great scenery, where 40 or 50 from each bus would be taking the same photo, only to be passed again by them further up the road.  One of the shop keepers up here was telling me that this western coast was having drought conditions and people were having to buy in water to fill up their tanks, which was unheard of.   At this time of year visitors usually complained about all the rain but this year the locals were doing the complaining.  He assured me that the dry weather was keeping the midges at bay though, a real bonus for them.   This is the only bit of the UK enjoying a warm, sunny summer this year.

Weird or what?

Stone churches no longer in use litter the countryside

On the night of the Closing Ceremony for The Olympics we parked just by the beach at Tarbet.  There was a cafe up the hill which was closed for business for the day, but they obviously had the best TV screen around as they had heaps of people there enjoying a BBQ before the broadcast began.   It would have been lovely to have been invited up to watch it as well but no such luck!  We only saw a few hours of the Olympics coverage all up.  We had bought a gadget to plug into the Netbook computer but we couldn’t get it to work, not having the services of bright, young children at our disposal at this present time!  This Tarbet has just seven houses, a cafe and a tiny office for a ferry.   I found out later that there are several places in Scotland called Tarbet, this one is in the county of Sutherland on the west coast probably 30 kms from the top of the mainland.  We decided that we would try out the ferry in the morning,  that would take us to Handa Island, a Nature Reserve.   Dennis had a long conversation with a 77-year-old deaf farmer called Don.  He was working his two border collies, encouraging them to move his flock of 100 sheep up the road to the common grazing area.  He has 50 acres and runs Cheviot sheep, white bodies and black spectacled faces.  The land he runs is under the Crofters system, it belongs to a 84-year-old widow, who was given Handa Island and many acres of the mainland around this general area, as a wedding present 52 years ago!  Don thought she was a very fair landlady and was pleased with the interest she had in the property.  She visited all the tenants several times a year and was still very much involved with the business of owning land.  She has gifted the use of the island to the Scottish Wildlife Trust.   

Tarbet, our home parked near the cafe

Tarbet Valley – looks like they are farming rocks

Handa Is is the larger one on the left

Back in 1841, Handa Island had a population of 65 but in 1848 the potato famine (same as the Irish had) forced the inhabitants to emigrate The islanders’ had a parliament, which met daily and the oldest widow on the Island was considered the Queen.  Apparently, they were a feisty lot and very independent.  They were also known as wreckers.  They would put up false navigation lights in order to cause ship wrecks from which they could scavenge.  You can still see the ruins of their stone houses and dry stone walls!  Nowadays, 5000 visitors each year come to see the  250,000 seabirds, particularly puffins.   We were so keen to view puffins but unfortunately we were just too late!  The last one flew away to join his mates far out at sea, where they spend the winter months each year, just the day before we came!  It took us three hours to walk around the 300 hectare island and although it was very windy in places it was thrilling.  During the summer time, a few volunteers stay with the one paid warden on the island.  One volunteer was an Aussie guy, probably about 25, helping visitors on and off the ferry and wading into the water to hold the boat secure, he had the most enormous bare feet!  He told me that he has such a hard time to find size 15 shoes, he didn’t want to get the ones he has at the moment wrecked in the salt water.

A Great Skua

Impressive cliffs 300 metres high on Handa Is, with 1000’s of birds’ nests in all the nooks and crannies

Skua chick

A Common Toad

The remnants of homes on Handa Island, with bracken growing in the foreground.  I’ve only seen green bracken here, not the dry brown stuff we have at home

Beautiful, tiny wildflowers including heather

The ferryman is also a fisherman. The UK are currently looking at adopting aspects of NZ’s fishing quota system as they are completely over fished here!  He told us he regularly is joined by Minke whales and dolphins and Orca on his trips to and from Handa Is but it didn’t happen that day

We love these dry stones walls in the UK. The workmanship is something to behold!

That small bird is a Wheatear

Listening to the weather forecast was a bit worrying.  We really wanted to take the ferry over to the Orkney Islands in a few days time but it finally became clear to us that if we were serious about that idea we would have to get a move on.  So the next day we dropped our slow meanderings and had a big day of driving through to John O’Groats on the north-eastern “corner” of Scotland.   It meant we rushed past several spots we would have stopped at but with the rain starting it spurred us on.   Driving up the west coast the tip of the mainland here is called Cape Wrath, then you turn right and the mainland  “straightens” out and you travel eastwards to the other end at John O’Groats.  This area of Scotland is around  59 degrees North.  We did stop for a short time at the Smoo Cave.  The cave is unique within the UK in that the first chamber has been formed by the action of the sea, whereas the inner chambers are freshwater passages,  formed from rainwater dissolving the limestone.   Smoo Cave is one of the reasons this area is included in the GeoPark.  Partway through the cave the waters of Allt Smoo River also drop in as a 20m high waterfall, we heard it but didn’t venture inside to actually see it. 

One thing we would have loved to stop at was next to one of the many “spy” stations we see up and down the west coast and along the top of Scotland.  The Ministry of Defence runs the Vulcan Naval Reactor Test Establishment here, housing the nuclear propulsion plants of the type operated in its submarine fleet.  For over 40 years Vulcan has been the cornerstone of the Royal Navy’s nuclear propulsion program, testing and  improving the operation of four generations of reactor core and currently testing its fifth.   Rolls Royce operate Vulcan on the behalf of the MoD and employ around 280 staff there, led by a small team from the Royal Navy.  Next door to this is the Dounreay Nuclear Power Station first established in 1955.  It has had a shocking reputation as far as safety and pollution and was decommissioned in 2005.  They are slowly cleaning the site of nuclear waste even to the extent of using a Geiger counter fitted robot submarine to pick up irradiated nuclear fuel particles on the seabed near the plant, estimated to be several hundreds of thousand in number!  There were big signs warning the public to keep clear.  It was sobering to find out all about this – the down side of nuclear power production.

We arrived at John O’Groats – what a weird name – it was actually a Dutch chap that this town was named after!   Jan de Groote ran the first ferry service between the mainland and the Orkneys in 1496. We parked in front of the ferry office for the night.  The weather forecasters proved to be correct, it was so blustery and poured with rain all night long!  I wondered if we would actually make it to the Islands the following day.

Cute footbridge on the way to Smoo Cave

Entrance to Smoo Cave

Cape Wrath – this is almost the northernmost point of the Great British mainland, almost, but not quite

Sheep really are king of the road around here. Vehicles don’t worry them a bit while they graze the common land, which is usually unfenced

All along the west coast of Scotland we regularly see these “spy stations”.

Even on a gloomy day, Scotland is lovely