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A Sassenach's Stravaig
Friday 5 June 2009 -- Galloping around the Highlands


I had been so engrossed in what I had been seeing, doing and photographing that two months had slipped by since my previous posting.

This posting was therefore a condensed account of where I'd been and what I'd done. No lustrous flowing prose, then, but bullet points and headlines.

Luss, Loch Lomond, near Glasgow

Highlights:

Falkirk Wheel -- 1

1. Visiting the Falkirk Wheel, a modern equivalent of the Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire, which I saw last year. Clever, stylish and imposing.

2. Seeing the ornate frontage of the former Argyll Motors factory at Alexandria, now a shopping gallery.

Also good: Two local walks, one through an old slate quarry and the other through the village's glebe field.

The site: Excellent. Right on the waterfront and handy for Luss village. Nice folk running it. (Camping and Caravanning Club.)

Glen Coe (aka Glencoe)

Highlights:

1. The magnificent mountain scenery surrounding the site. I thought the view at Keswick was dramatic but this was even more so.

2. A half-day Land Rover tour of Glen Coe and the neighbouring Glen Etive (not as spectacular or overbearing but more beautiful). It was led by one of the local rangers from the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which owns 14,000 acres of both. I learned much -- and in a shorter time than I'd ever have on my own -- of the geology, wildlife, history, land use and social arrangements in the Highlands in former times.

3. Taking the short ferry ride at Corran to see the oak woods bordering Loch Linnhe -- a change from the Highlands' omnipresent evergreens -- and a visit to Strontian. It's the only place in Britain after which a chemical element is named. Yes, strontium. The ore was mined there.

Also good:

1. Lots of off-lead walking for Jenny along the logging road behind the site.

Macdonald monument

2. Seeing the memorial to the people slain in the infamous massacre of the Macdonalds in 1692.

3. Neptune's Staircase at Fort William, a set of 13 locks at the southern end of the Caledonian Canal.

A Scottish fiord?

4. The views of Ben Nevis from Corpach, a couple of miles from there.

The site: Good. Next door to the NTS's visitor centre for Glen Coe. Would have been excellent but for the noise from people who should know better. One of the managers thought everyone would enjoy her weekly attempts to find the right key in her (theoretically) private karaoke sessions. (Camping and Caravanning Club.)

Dunvegan, Isle of Skye

Highlights:

Skye sunset -- 1

1. Wonderful views up the sea loch adjoining the site, with some glorious sunsets.

2. The rococo rock formations at Quiraing -- high, steep and jagged.

3. The hulking mass of the Cuillins, a range of 20 closely-spaced high peaks. They're a magnet for mountaineers (so you won't see me on them. I'm SSL -- strictly sea-level).

Also good:

1. The Museum of Island Life at Kilmuir.
2. The view from the Millennium stone the villagers erected above Dunvegan.
3. The ruined old church on the way to it.
4. The gardens of Dunvegan Castle, ancestral home of the Clan MacLeod.

The site: Excellent. A small private site handy for the village. Unlike the peripatetic managers of club sites, the owner and his assistant were full of detailed information about the locality and its history.

(At one club site, the assistant managers didn't know the name of the next village, three miles away. They'd been there "only" two months.)

Kinlochewe, Archnasheen, Wester Ross

Highlights:

Peak-a-boo

1. The adjoining Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. Beautiful views and lots of good walking.

2. Watching a cuckoo flitting through the woods and scrub at dusk. It allowed me to get quite close.

3. Seeing Gruinard Island, where the Government tested anthrax as a biological weapon during the 1940s. It didn't look anywhere near as bleak and threatening as I'd expected. That part of the coast is remote, quiet and lovely.

Also good: Ullapool -- a pretty little place, like a fishing village in Devon or Cornwall.

The site: Excellent. Well laid-out and compact. Friendly managers. (Caravan Club.)

Dunnet, near Thurso, Caithness

Highlights:

Dunnet Head lighthouse

1. Visiting Dunnet Head, the most northerly part of mainland Britain, and Duncansby Head, not far away, which is the most north-easterly. The lighthouses on both are by the Stevenson family -- five generations of lighthouse engineers and one novelist, Robert Louis. (I naturally went to John O'Groats but it's mostly tourist tat and you have to pay to use the public toilets.)

2. Sitting in the van and watching gannets punch holes in the water off Duncansby Head. I've seen it on the telly often enough but that doesn't convey their size or their speed as they plummet into the waves like feathered mortar bombs.

3. The fishing harbour at Scrabster. Plenty of colourful (and, of course, niffy) boats, which you could go near, and a pair of seals patrolling for scraps from them. There are lots of '-bsters' locally -- Scrabster, Brabster, Ulbster, Sibster, Lybster and Mybster. I couldn't find out what the ending means.

Also good: On the way to the next site, stopping at the RSPB reserve at Forsinard. It's in the Flow Country, a huge expanse of peat bogs and small dark pools (lochans dhub).

The site: Excellent. Just a few yards from a lovely sandy beach and a community forest. (Caravan Club.)

Tarland, near Aboyne, Aberdeenshire

Tomnaverie stone circle

The stone circle at Tomnaverie Hill, a couple of miles from the site. It's about 4,500 years old and gives a view all the way to the snowy peak of Lochnagar.

Also good: Walking in Drummy Woods, a couple of hundred yards from the site.

The site: Excellent. Handy for Deeside, Glenlivet and Balmoral. (Camping and Caravanning Club.)

Cobleland, Aberfoyle, Stirlingshire

Highlights:

1. Seeing my son and his fiancée, who came up to Glasgow for the bank holiday weekend. We went to Stirling (castle and Wallace Monument), then to Callander. It was famous years ago as the location for the original TV series of Dr Finlay's Casebook. At lunch in a pub in Drymen, we watched a procession of kilted Scotsmen swirl in and out from a wedding reception. It's a fine outfit if you've got the haunches for it.

Wood-Sorrel

2. The endless carpet of bluebells in the woods surrounding the site and their heavy, spicy scent. Lots of other wildflowers, too.

Also good:

1. Balquhidder, a tiny spot where 'Rob Roy' McGregor is buried. (Throughout my Scottish travels, I've found the Undiscovered Scotland site to be consistently helpful and informative. Its compilers deserve congratulating.)

2. En route to the next site, calling in on a friend who lives in an old house overlooking Loch Earn, near Crieff. Jim's supplied me with computers and advice on using them for years.

The site: Useful. Next to the River Forth in Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. Lovely location and only three miles from Aberfoyle but needs money spending on it. The internal roads are badly potholed, some of the pitches are too cramped and the toilets and showers are looking old. It's the dearest site I've stayed at this year and I expected better for the money. (Forest Holidays -- a joint venture between the Camping and Caravanning Club and the Forestry Commission.)

And now for something only slightly similar

Sunset at Bass Rock -- 2

I'm presently staying at the Camping and Caravanning Club's newest site, at Oxwellmains, near Dunbar, East Lothian. It opened this year and is roomy and well appointed, with a fine view of the Firth of Forth and Bass Rock. The sun sets right by this and has given everyone a wonderful show most nights.

The site, which was formerly a mile or so to the south-east, has been constructed on restored overburden from the nearby limestone quarry. There are tiny trees in tubes everywhere.

Where it was is now a large hole in the ground from which Blue Circle extract the makings for cement. It sounds grimly industrial but there's no smell and little noise. I like that sort of thing, anyway.

Lark ascending

One consequence of the local geology is that the area is full of chalk-loving plants (calcicoles, in the jargon) such as weld, campions in all shades from pure white to crimson, bird's-foot trefoil, yellow rattle, black medick and viper's bugloss, with its dramatic spikes of blue blooms with red anthers. It's like being on the Sussex downs but with far fewer people. Everywhere you go there are larks singing above you. Delightful.

It's a bit of a trek to the "nearby" beach (with another Stevenson lighthouse adjacent) but there are plenty of paths hereabouts for pedestrians and cyclists, as well as many unofficial shortcuts across fields. More on this place next time.

- - - - -

Phew!

This has been for me a reconnaissance of the Highlands, much of which I'd never been to before. I liked the area immensely -- magnificent scenery; plenty of wildlife; historical connections everywhere; friendly and quietly-spoken people; solitude when I wanted it and good roads, most of them with little traffic. I'm thinking of going back at a more leisurely pace after the emmets and midges have left, probably in late August.


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