Sunday morning 26 August, we’re off by 0930 motoring in a Vauxhall Astra put together by an Ikea Franchise in Bangladesh. At SIXT Hire Cars, we somehow got put into the ‘Lucky Dip’ section of their system and there is no escape from that without coughing up more time and money. Meaning we could have got anything from a tandem bike to a Merc. Heading north out of Glasgow towards Inverness then north west to Ullapool and finally, after an expected eight hours travel, via a narrow one lane road into the ‘linear’ village Achiltibuie set on a mountain slope as it falls gently towards Badentarbat Bay. Here we will spend three nights in a small Crofters Cottage with a fire. Yay, I love the procedure of setting and lighting fires then quietly sitting at peace, heart beat 59, looking into the flames seeing all sorts of things and dreaming.
Looking at a map of Scotland, its a fragmented country torn asunder it seems by geological forces that were determined to not glue themselves back together. Hinged to England at Hadrians wall, cleaved near clean thru from Inverness south westerly via Loch Ness, Loch Lochy, past Fort William into Loch Linnhe then finally into the Firth of Lorne and the Atlantic. Its like a jigsaw puzzle with its pieces not quite set in place. The north west highlands where we are headed, has pieces of land ripped and fragmented with pieces thrusting themselves out like claws grappling at the seas, separated by bays, rivers, lochs, harbours with offshore, hundreds of islands, treacherous rocks and reefs.
Today is going to be an exciting part of our journey as we are travelling into the unexpected, whereas one sort of knew what to expect in a way, travelling about Ireland. To ad an edge to our day, BBC weather advises that a storm front will move across Ireland and Britain today bringing sheeting rain and high winds. Now that puts an edge on the day and notches up the concentration levels expected of a seventy five year old driver. More so when that driver gets on one of the ‘M’ British roads where the speed limit is eighty miles per hour, which equates to near 130 kph’r and those smarty pance Audi and BMW drivers are up your exhaust pipe flashing their lights wanting to pass, wondering why you are toddling along at 100kph. Grr grr.
Our first stop, for smoko, is at Pitlochry a very picturesque tourist village set at the foot of the Grampian Mountains a huge hulking mass of rock, moors, small lochs, rivers, raging waterfalls, snow huts, chalets, chair lifts, mountains exceeding 1200 metres, perpetually cold winds, snow, ice and brr brr. On a previous trip, in 2015, Sue and I innocently motored up into and over these mountains in winter on the A93, heading for a BnB at the village of Braemar which has the reputation of being the coldest village in Great Britain. It was snowing and the BnB owners in their eight room house, we were the only guests, had to cut up a door, a surplus one, settle down, to have firewood to keep us warm. It was still bloody cold unless we perched in the fire. Balmoral Castle was just down the road where the Royal Family have central heating, warm towel rails and Corgis to keep them warm. Charles uses a Polo Pony.
Sue and Ms Google Daisy Trump, guide us around Inverness and across the ‘Beauty Firth’ on a modern looking bridge as the road standard lessens as Government does not want those wild kilted Highlanders Rory, Murugh, Stewart and Fergus coming down to Inverness City throwing Cabers about, eating raw Black Puddings and looking for Englishmen to stick their Pikes into. We are back on Irish roads it seems with not so many bends and twists more long sweeps, trees in abundance, some moorland, villages, tumbling down stone cottages, rushing waterfalls, streams and rivers flowing, mountain sides climbing upwards where fairy floss clouds hide their tops. Theres a fair bit of traffic as it nears the end of the six week school holiday break but neither the rain nor wind recognise that.
Finally we are into Ullapool population of 1,541 only an hour by road from our final destination which is about 15 miles away as the crow flies. Highland crows fly erratically as they wear tiny kilts and sip Highland Whisky. Founded in 1788 as a Herring Port, the year the First Fleet arrived in what was to become Oz, and gee, havn’t we allowed inept Pollies to stuff it up, sorry Aboriginals. The town of Ullapool, is geared for the fishing and the tourist industry. Once a day, a ferry leaves on the two hour trip to Lewis Island where Sue’s ancestral line originated. Ullapool, set at the end of a long narrow bay guarded by brooding mountains, is blessed in a way as the North Atlantic Drift, a warmish body of ocean water, flows by moderating the temperature hereabouts allowing an Aussie plant, Cordyline australis to florish here. And if you ever go to the magical, scenic Balkan country Montenegro, you will find Eucalypts and a wide variety of Aussie plants growing there. I saw several Geraldton Wax.
Ullapool is cloudier than any other village or city in Europe with only 1,105 sunshine hours a year. I worked that out and it equates to 110.5 sunny days a year. Not bad.
Pushing on in light drizzle after refreshments at the Foreshore Hotel Ullapool, tea and coffee and NO wee dram of Whisky, see, I can leave the demon drink alone, we turn off the two lane road onto a single lane road heading into Achiltibuie. This is a daylights headlights on road like no other as it is has even more twists, turns, curves, dips, rises and blind corners than anything we experienced in Ireland. Thankfully its a bitumen road albeit narrow in width, a well worn patchy bitumen, with a passing ‘pod’ every 50 metres or so that you tend to swing into in expectation of Daniel Riccardo coming the tother way. Each passing ‘pod’ is marked by a sign, ‘Passing Place’. How thoughtful. The road follows the bays, inlets and banks of Lochs Lurgainn, Badagyle and Oscaig which flow one to the other thence into a narrow channel which is the River Garvie. This flows into Garvie Bay. Huge bland, moody mountains to our right and away to the left, waterfalls percolate, gargle and rush down to top up the Lochs. Its an interesting stay alert drive as we pass a number of vehicles all giving us a cheery wave as we wait in a ‘Passing Place’.
We are heading into the ‘Coigach’ which I understand is a name for the area, see below *, and its collective today, of some ten or so smallish settlements with our village, Achiltibuie having the best pub with Lei the big smiling Greek bargirl and her hulking Zorba like boyfriend. Theres only one other pub and it sadly does not have Greeks. ‘Our’ village also has the post office, general store with fuel bowsers where you can give and take some cheek from the proprietor, a war memorial, church (sort of), community hall (a nice newish building), cafes (well two), the best AirBnB run by Iain, make that the best most friendliest accommodation in the Coigach, and the most sheep on the road. *Coigach is a Scottish Gaelic word referring to the peninsula north of Ullapool. It’s derived from ‘five’ or ‘fifths’ referring to the back then five important townships of the peninsula all starting with the letter ‘A’. From Achduart to our village Achiltibuie. Great historical stuff and ‘I just love it’.
‘Our’ village is called a ‘linear’ village as, due to the slope from mountain to the sea and historic division of the land into equal Croft’s, allotments or fields, running down the slope to the Bay, the houses and other buildings straggle or are strung out along the narrow ‘main street’. But don’t call it a main street, its just a snaking about road linking houses and people. Flocks of mild mannered road smart sheep and their lambs use it as a thoroughfare. But it does have a few street lights. And I spotted some road kerbing and footpaths but not too much of either. I hope no rich billionaire comes along and spoils it!!! The one village road is carved out of the hillside, with houses left and right each on their allotment. Those people of the folding sort ‘means’, have bitumised their driveways and the road into the community hall is also bitumen. You need to know these things when you plan your holiday trip here.
It would have been a very tough life back then when the crofts which is an area, usually ‘fenced’ by inverted ‘V’ shaped rock walls, enclosing five acres of arable land which was not always arable. A crofter is one who has tenure and use of the land to graze his stock, mostly sheep and to eke out a few vegetables. Surrounded by Lochs and a myriad of bays, inlets, rivers and islands, there was fish a plenty as well as oysters to supplement ones diet and to dry for the larder and the long winter when snow falls. The sea hereabouts is still fished today although with reduced stocks. People could not make a living out of their ‘Croft’ so the community all pitched in at times, worked cutting peat, fishing, building and at shearing time, all the Crofters were involved. Over time it built a real sense of togetherness.
We settle in at our Crofters Cottage, spot the fireplace and light it. Out the window is the choppy Bay just there past some scruffy looking croft land with heather and reeds a few sheep nosing about, and beyond several Islands. Over 5,000 years all the trees have been stripped from the hill and mountain sides and so our firewood is reconstituted wood fibres or peat blocks. Later, all ‘rugged up’, its chilly, a walk along the road keeping an eye out for slow moving cars and even slower inquisitive sheep. Then down to the Pipers School Cafe located in a former timber framed Scout Hall which was where, once upon a time, you could come learn to play the bagpipes at a specialised school and/or learn to be a scout. Now a cafe run by two great jolly ladies whose skin has been stretched over the years by the excesses of life. A marvellous possie looking out over the fields to the Bay and just in front, a post supporting sea weathered tree branches from which are hung a number of bird feeding pods and pieces of fruit where Starlings, Hawfinches and Bluetails are having a bird smoko.
We drive out to see the other ten or so small villages dotted about the near area some of them tumbling one into the other like Achiltibuie and Polyglass and further out past Badenscallie where a narrow gorge with a roar of raging water rushing down under a road bridge flows quickly into the Bay. Out further is Cul Na Craig and the end of the road. Back the other way, the road, one lane still with those signed passing ‘pods’ every 50 metres or so, twists, turns and switchbacks its way over hills, past rocky outcrops, crofter fields and into tiny villages set overlooking a bay, headland, river or just for the view.
Into Dornie, Old Dornie, Altandhu, Achahaird, Polbain the twisting swerving road passing small harbours, many fishing boats of the open dory sort, houses clinging to hillsides, BnB’s, fields of red heather, brown moorland, tiny sparkling Lochs for today is sunny, and back home to park up at the general store to buy firewood, peat blocks in fact. Twenty for 6.50 love. Thats just over 11 AUD’s but I, we, just love the warmth and ambience of fires.
Did I mention the Summer Isles Hotel with its tiny bar and the greek girl Lia and her boyfriend Zorba who have been here five months saving money and drawing in customers with their cheerful Greek personalities. We learn from them, that the largish island just over there in the Bay, its name is Tanera Mor, Mor meaning ‘Big’, which has about 6 to 10 cottages on it, has been purchased by a billionaire and is being turned into a six star resort with guests to arrive by helicopter and posh cruiser. The billionaire seems to be a community aware person by employing locals and keeping them ‘in the loop’ by turning it on at a soirre for the locals on the island.
Piccy at left is the Achiltibuie Artists Room at the Community Centre. Great display and thats Liz at the desk. Sue buying ‘stuff’.
Just a few steps away is the Community Hall a building adapted over ten years to suit the mood, swings and roundabouts of its interesting wide ranging work disciplined community. The Artists room with many interesting items for sale most different and innovative even the locally produced ‘cards’, compared to 90% of galleries I have been in. Hey, it doubles as a snooker room in the winter months. In fact, the full sized snooker table is there hidden under a layer of cloth with artists hurdy gurdies laid out over the top. Go Achiltibuie Artists and snooker players.
If you get the idea that Sue and I are thinking about settling in Achiltibuie, you are right but that would have been fifty years ago, not today. It gets too bloody cold and theres no AFL on TV. In fact, theres very little TV. Its not needed in a friendly socially vibrant place like Achiltibuie. 😘
Achiltibuie, Wednesday morn, overcast, slight drizzle, we say goodbye to our friendly AirBnB host Iain, who lives right next door, and his ageing cat ‘Spook’ who opens and shuts its cat door with ‘magnets’ fixed to her collar. Its a slow drive back to Ullapool where we are booked on the ferry to go to the Isle of Harris and the Isle of Lewis both being the same piece of island. Harris the smaller south end joined like an appendix and Lewis the larger north end the names and island division coming about due to fierce fighting by clansmen, egotistical tribal leaders and the politics of men eating Neeps (swedes) and Tatties (spuds), wearing kilts, sporrans and no undies. Cromwell helped sort the lot out as he did in England, Ireland and we need him at the moment in Canberra. Donald Trumps mum, Mary Anne MacLeod Trump was born at Tong on the Isle of Harris. Who said the lunatic fringe were all gone from the Isle of Harris Genes.
Ooroo from Des.
Buying eggs Achiltibuie style – an honesty system. There are no nincompoops, idiots nor hoons here who would trash this honesty system. No graffiti either.