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A Scenic trip to the Top of Scotland
Article by Rob Wilkinson

Copyright 2002, all rights reserved.


HOW TO GET TO THE TOP!

So where do you start when attempting to describe one of our planet’s most wondrous landscapes and an area that captures and preserves the very essence of creativity.

The start would be a good idea and for the sake of argument let’s turn on the engine and the little village of Luss. Apparently it’s Scottish Gaelic for herbaceous border and it’s true to its word lying like a giant flower patch on the bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

Luss is a 20 minute drive from Glasgow and about a third of the way up the Loch’s surprising length. It’s at this point it funnels in and dictates the road’s and forms a beautiful introduction to an ever enriching landscape.

There are two superb bed and breakfasts next door to each other just off the A82 and both provide a hearty enough breakfast to set you up for the road north in perfect shape!

Head north up the A82 as far as Crianlarich but don’t forget the the road to Campbeltown that could confuse the breathtaken motorist at the village of Tarbet. That particular trip can be pencilled in for another time..and don’t forget that pencil!

Crianlarich is a wee small place with an importance based purely on its geography as a crucial rail and road junction. It lies at the point where Glen Falloch, Strath Fillan and Glen Dochart all meet up.

From here head west on the A85 and along the valley floor to another important point. The village of Tyndrum hosts a quality camp site, accomodation and the famed Green Welly Stop where all and sundry meet up before heading in their respective directions.

And not many settlements of Tyndrum’s size boast two railway stations. Upper Tyndrum takes you off north to shadow our journey for part of the way to Fort William while Lower Tyndrum heads for the fishing and ferry port of Oban - another trip to pencil in for another day and a wonderful taster to the Inner Isles that lie beyond.

It’s time to catch the A82 once again and head up past the Bridge of Orchy where the railway potters off to the harsher terrains of Rannoch Moor. The road forks viciously as you head up into the high ground that forms the rock solid foundations of Rannoch Moor and the inspiring Glencoe beyond.

It can be as if you’re driving on the moon when you pass this way in winter and the road winds into the foothills of Glencoe that build themselves into almost giant gate posts in the distance.

You’re soon over the threshold though and with the famous hikers’ retreat the Kingshouse behind you head into your first glimpse of nature taking real charge.

With the West Highland Way crossing the road and heading off to Kinlochleven you can rest assured that this is walkers’ country. A crisp layout of challenges that will test the mettle of any pedomaniac.

I’ve done a few but nowhere near as many as I’d liked. The Clachaig Inn further down the road proves to me a more comforting abode than a dangerous scree slope 2000m up! But I have done the Aonach Eigah ridge and that is enough for any lifetime.

Rated as one of the toughest in Scotland it starts off at the gentle Inn-side slopes and works its way through gorse and scree to the first of its two munros. Then the ridge stretches before you like a finely sharpened Great Wall of China.

Take lots of chocolate, plenty of flexibility and a yearning for a post climb pint as a motivation to get to the end because once you’re into it there’s little point in turning back.

A magnificent experience and one that came to life at the glorious Red Squirrel campsite on the fringes of Glencoe Village and just a short hop, skip and Guinness fueled stumble from the Clachaig Inn!

So many happy memories and many more blurred ones would tell you a little bit more about the intoxicating spell this Glencoe area places upon you and the way you’re released from twenty first century shackles in so many ways.

But there’s more to talk about! The Visitor Centre provides a chilling reminder of the brutal Massacre of Glencoe while further up the road in Ballachulish lies the magnificent Highland Mystery World. I would recommend this to everybody and the loch side museum-cum-theatre teaches you a lot more about the mystery and legend that pervades this unforgettable landscape...and brings it quite literally to life!

Just before the turn you could, if you wanted (and I’ve wanted too often!) time a few moments to head towards Kinlochleven at the far end of ...you guessed it Loch Leven.

Any place in the Highlands that starts with Kinloch..should translate to the inexperienced as unmissable. They all hold something very special and this former aluminium mining settlement is no different. Once totally based around the metal the village has slowly softened to become a lot more pliable.

There are a few places to stay here and we’ve done a couple. The locals are a great bunch and easy to drink an evening away with as well as being pretty mean on the old small green baize.

The mine has long since gone and only an empty shell of a building and an enlightening audio-visual display and presentation remain. Kinlochleven..don’t miss it out..it’s on your kind of route!

The road up the other side of Leven arrives out just past the distinctive bridge which I can’t help but think has added to Kinlochleven’s struggle.

There’s a confectionary attraction just as pull out onto the A82 and well worth a visit for those with sweet tooths. It seems all hedonistic pleasures are catered for up here!

Back on the A82 and on up to Fort William along the loch banks. For another day catch the Corran ferry over to Moydart and explore this gentle dinosaur landscape and its many attractions including Glenfinnan’s very own Nelson’s Column.

Follow the Fort William to Mallaig  (we left it at Orchy but it’s now back to share some more magical moments!) railway and enjoy some stunning scenes out over the Sound of Arisaig..very sound!

>From Mallaig you can catch the car ferry and day trip boats to seemingly anywhere but please check with Calmac before planning too much. Either way it’s another wonderful little area that needs a few days of committed experience to trully soak up.

I’ve gone off the tracks..right detour back and miss out the Corran Ferry crossing. We’re heading up to Fort William...the biggest spot you’ll find on this side of the fence north of Glasgow although I suspect Oban may argue that!

It’s got a touristy feel about it but there’s a great chance here to stock up on provisions, explore the many camping shops and tuck into battered haggis...something that will allow you to kill off a million midges with just a single untensioning of the rear!

Head out to Spean Bridge and the road that follows the Caledonian Canal upto the loched entry to Loch Ness at Fort Augustus. Again keep this for another day once you reach Invergarry!

The Commando Memorial and Ben Nevis chairlift (I’ve cheated I’m afraid) are on the route before you reach Invergarry and there’s also Laggan Locks over the Caledonian...boats don’t travel as fast as trains and if you’re lucky and the bridge is up you’ll get an idea of exactly how slowly you have to travel to take it all in up here!

You’re on the A82 until you reach Invergarry where you quite literally go up five notches to the A87..the roads are doing their own marking!  There’s a shinty field on the edge of Invergarry and if you’ve got time and there’s a game on take in this very entertaining and unheralded sport.

It’s like rugby with cricket bats and having played a lot of both sports I know how dangerous that could be!

We’re just out of the woods and climbing upwards towards views of Glen Morriston, the Five Sisters and forested Glen Garry. You’d be hard pressed to find a better landscape anywhere and on a good day it’s like a giant glimpse into the future..one where nature once again holds firm sway.

But wait..there’s a wee road to the left almost apologetically signposted for Kinloch Hourn. Only 22 miles and a dead end that looks just that after a few miles of obscured tree-lined views but soon develops from an ugly duckling into a beautiful and slightly challenging swan...sorry about that analogy!

The approach to Kinloch Hourn is unforgettable and a test for any vehicle over 10 inches in length! But once you arrive there it all opens out to reveal a wonderful boxed in cove with no more than four or five buildings scattered around...but most importantly a campsite, a toilet and a stunning entry to a coastal walk that takes you to the inaccessible bothy at Barrisdale.

Back on the A87 it’s all uphill as you rise over Glen Morriston and then dip as if releasing some big sigh of relief. Turn left at the junction and head up the side of the Claunie Dam into dreamland.

I make no apologies for loving Glenshiel ‘and this neck of the woods’ - it’s hosted skinny dipping delight and many inspiring moments despite its shady past that dates back to a very one-sided 17th century battle!

Just before you start to skirt the Loch Duich there’s another apologetic turning, this time for Glenelg and the ferry that takes you over the sea to Skye..or to be more specific Kylerhea. Go across this way in the summer and avoid giving the Skye Bridge dictators double the pleasure.

The road up to a point overlooking Glen Shiel provides quite spectacular views over a landscape that has been nurtured to virtual perfection by the aeons.

It’s easy to think that once you’ve seen one mountain they all look the same but when you crush them together over a several hundred mile spine they all look very different and while they may be nothing more than covered lumps of rock to some they offer a microcosm of nature at its very finest.

It’s where a man feels like a mouse feels like a mountain...so intrinsically part of something so great and unimaginable that we are just a tiny part of a very very big cosmos. So it’s a bit like a Hajj or pilgrimage of sorts as we seek to find the true meaning and our true place in existence.

Anyway back down to earth and the fantastic ferry, or ‘roundabout’ that takes you to Skye. It’s not just the odd glimpse of an otter or the merry go round ferry mechanisms that makes this experience leap out at you...it’s the setting. A stunning stretch of water seperating two overbearing giants as far as the eye can see!

The road from Kylerhea to the A850 Skye ‘link’ road is a long and windy one so beware of being too desperate to catch the Cuillins!  First big stop is Broadford..fill up in more ways than one because it could be a while before you sniff petrol again!

In the middle of Broadford is another wee road that heads for Elgol. Do it! The distance doesn’t seem far but takes hours...it’s a ‘take it easy’ detour! And once you reach the dead end you’ll find yourself very very alive with an extensive glimpse of the Cuillins and an array of islands floating away in the distance.

I’ve not been to Rhum, Canna and Eigg but I will one day. Skye, Raasay, Mull and the Orkneys are the limit of my adventures to date when it comes to leaving dry highland!

Back on the A850 heading towards Portree, very much the capital of Skye and a wonderful display of local experiences as well as offering great accomodation options to suit any budget. The campsite just north of the town is a super spot from where to explore the drinking delights and curry house of this charming place.

But rewind..we’ve just left Broadford. Soon you’ll happen upon Sconser where a ferry can take you to Raasay. Worth an experience but an expensive crossing from my recollection. Raasay used to have a railway and it offers a couple of interesting drinking spots, some friendly (and filling) B&Bs and some panoramic snapshots.

Back on Skye and upto Sligachan where you’ll find a great campsite in the cove and a superb inn...that in my book is a great combination until 1am when you realise the difficulty of stumbling back to your tent with your tank on full! Aptly named the Sligachan Inn it boasts a great range of beers and whiskies
and a very friendly craic.

Turn inland here and travel on down into the heart of the Cuillins. The Talisker whiskey distillery, in my mind purveyors of the finest single malt around, sits at the end of the road that also offers a wonderful and trully windy Cuillin front door at Glenbrittle.

Follow the coast around Skye past Dunvegan and its clan castle and around through Uig which offers a penultimate chance to head for the Outer Hebrides.

You’ll be back in Portree and ready to hit the mainland again but this is where there’s an unpleasant taste left in the mouth. I won’t go on about the Skye Bridge as I’ve already written at length on that topic but suffice to say the smooth man-made beauty of its construction is more than negated by the shambles and disgrace that has accompanied its presence.

It was 5.70 to cross each way at last glance, a crippling amount for a penny-wise traveller but one to  be prepared for. Give me the Glenelg ferry any day of the week..well during the summer anyway!

You’re back on the mainland and in Kyle of Lochalsh, another bustling little centre of human emotion and movement. From here you can either catch a train overland to Inverness or chose the road north.

Both tracks (well take a slight road detour) visit the picturesque village of Plockton, used, as everyone reminds everyone, for the series Hamish MacBeth.

The road follows the rail once again. It’s like a common consensus has formed that brings two generations of transport head to head!

Several overs, ups, acrosses and downs later you’re in Strathcarron where you leave the railway behind and head into Lochcarron for a possible stock-up or stay over. A lovely little loch side settlement, the village offers some awe inspiring watery landscapes.

So if you’re looking at your map you’ll see we’re taking the long way around..no shortcuts for us on this inspiring journey of discovery..maximum absorption..that’s what’s required!

Take the turn off for Applecross and head on Britain’s highest road and most challenging to the small village of Applecross, nestled in a verdant bay overlooking Raasay.

If you take the other road don’t go planning anything but it’s still worth it as the road hugs the coastline all the way back to the A896 at Shieldaig...the marks are going up!

Shieldaig is an eye-catching fishing village with a few B&Bs, a hotel and a welcoming bar but why oh why put another Shieldaig just a few miles above it..who knows but it can be confusing!

Pass on up to Kinlochewe via Torridon where climbing challenges and a neatly placed campsite offer a brief annexation of driving responsibilities.

At Kinlochewe head north for Gairloch. A largish village with a golf course, plenty of accomodation and a potentially wallet crushing range of craft shops. There are also great walks inland to be had from here.

The A832 goes through Poolewe ..it might rhyme but ruins my road marking system! Up past the must visit Inverewe Gardens and Aultbea where I can thoroughly recommend some Scandinavian triangle lodges on the hill overlooking the village..and the warming pub next door..both homes to some good times!

You’re heading off down and then up (A835) towards Ullapool where there are some entertaining and hearty nightspots from where you can plan your final leg.

Ullapool can take a half day off your schedule. It offers an innovative insight into the area and boasts several top nosh haunts..you really can’t go wrong but it still has that sea-sidey feel about it..but then maybe not such a bad thing.

Ullapool is also the last point where you can head into the outer space that is the Outer Hebrides..something again I’ve promised to do many times but fallen short on every occasion.

Take the A835 north up and fork off towards Lochinver for another pleasant escape. Two good pubs and a handful of B&Bs in a spot at the mouth of the Loch...Inver! It’s also got a cashpoint..the last one for some distance but that may have changed.

It’s a good place to stop the night if it suits but you’re tantalisingly close now! Instead of heading west it’s time to push on north and get ready for another surprise. The bridge that joins Unapool & Kylesku with Kylestrome is a great and contemporary feat of engineering and doesn’t feature a toll..always a pre-requisite for a good crossing!

It’s featured in countless car ads and probably sold a few in the process. But take a sneak into Kylesku and find out where you used to be able to cross the loch..by ferry.

The whole of the Assynt region has a very strange feel about it. It’s almost like something from another planet but a pretty damn fine planet.

Head north through Scourie which really does stick in the mind..can’t think why though as it’s one of the only spots up here I’ve not hit the bar in! It strikes me as a great place to stay surrounded as it is on one side by rocky outcrops and on the other by verdant pastures that lead to the sea.

Now if you’re down on your luck and need a free night the next few miles offer a couple of off the cuff alternatives. First of all head south towards Lairg at Laxford Bridge and a mile or so down on the left is a perfect natural woodland campsite..don’t think too many have spotted that one!

Also just past the turning for the fishing village of Kinlochbervie, well worth a visit, is a layby where you can park up for the night..right next to a phone box that inexplicably kept ringing during our in-car sleep! And that was one windy night...what with battered haggis kicking in!

You’re nearly there..you’ve nearly reached the top. You head across another dinosaur valley that is criss-crossed by this tiny strip of road with a passing place sign leaping up every few yards.

It’s a fascinating insight into human nature...the passing place that is. Deal with fast and frustrated locals in an instant and swerve into one to avoid any kamikaze sheep..or lambikazes I suppose!

And when you do wait to let someone in the opposite direction do make a note of the enthusiasm of their gratitude. A simple raise of the middle finger is not enough although a fully fledged samba dance on the roof of their car flowering you in an instant with gifts and chocolate is probably too over the top.

Just before Durness you can head across the Kyle to Cape Wrath via the boat if it’s operating. Stand as close to the cliff as you can, feel life in its truest sense for a few moments and know you’ve been to the edge and back.

Durness, finally the ending of our trip to the top, offers lots of stop over options and a remarkable golf course, shared with a number of sheep and cattle, that has swallowed more of my golf balls than all others put together. Not just the watery hazards here but a good 25% chance of landing in a pat never to be retrieved!

And the final hole over the cliff edge would look like a top course in Portugal were it not for the force 10 hurricane blowing in your face and waves lashing below like a hungry tentacles looking to lap up every last piece of hardened rubber and plastic that tries to cross its path! Exhilerating.

One final spot is the craft village at an old early warning base..a far more constructive use I say and a veritable cornucopia of everything from candles to bizarre wines. Worth a visit but prepare to want to buy some more memories of your trip to the top!


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