Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category
The year’s mission to get out more at weekends and make the most of the beautiful walking opportunities nearby, continues.
As does the weather’s mission to be as miserable as possible. Thankfully Saturday’s walk around the Shenavall circuit, south of Ullapool, wasn’t a particularly rainy one. But the mist obscured our views quite considerably, even though the route didn’t take us over 400m.
It was still an interesting and beautiful walk, especially when we descended a pass to arrive at Shenavall MBA bothy, which was at a lovely position at the head of Loch Sealga. Eventually things cleared up towards the end of the afternoon.
One of these weekends, it’ll be gloriously blue skies and bright sunshine, and I’ll get some great photos. And then complain about how stifingly hot it was.
As usual, photos on Flickr.
We had planned to spend Saturday doing the well-known Five Sisters of Kintail, a stunning ridge of peaks close to the main road from Inverness to Skye.
I’d never done them before, but sadly our group cancelled on the plan because of the weather. It wasn’t unduly bad – rain and wind, but very much within manageable limits – but the problem was the thick mist enshrouding the Five Sisters.
They are apparently a great climb, and together represent one of the most spectacular ridge walks in the country, with incredible views all around. We felt, therefore, that there wasn’t much point doing all that on an occasion when there was nothing to see.
So Sunday’s target, Beinn Fhada, was promoted to Saturday’s billing. It, too, was covered in mist, but at least it was not so much of a waste of effort or a loss of views as the Five Sisters would have been.
Still, though, it presented an interesting and challenging climb with a long walk, a couple of fast-flowing rivers to navigate, and lots of rain (and even some snow) to battle through.
On the lower parts of the ascent and descent, the sun just about shone and there were lovely views back along the glen.
On Sunday, the weather again unconducive to a major climb, we did the old coast path from Corran/Arnisdale, near Glenelg. It was a lovely walk with great views of Loch Hourn and across to Knoydart. At the path’s end, we could see Berrisdale, known for being a a midpoint between Kinlochhourn and Inverie.
I had been to Inverie a long time ago, a village not on the road network and home of supposedly Britain’s remotest pub The Old Forge. There, the great food and beer is no doubt enhanced by the fact that you’ll have inevitably undertaken a major hike (or at best a boat journey from Mallaig) to get there. It was a lovely four-day walk there and back, and I’d love to go again.
The whole area around Kintail and Knoydart is home to some of Scotland’s best mountains and coastline, and perhaps its most spectacular scenery. It will be nice to return again when it is not quite so wet and miserable.
Because of the rubbish weather, I didn’t take too many photos. A few of them, though, are on Flickr for your perusal.
Much of Britain is littered with the often rarely visible remains of closed railways, many of them victims of the infamous Beeching Axe.
Of course, Beeching can’t take all the blame for railway closures in this country, because many closed long before (and, in some cases, after) his efforts. One of those that closed beforehand was the Fort Augustus branch line.
Running along the southern half of the Great Glen between Fort William and the lochside at Fort Augustus, the line was opened in 1903 and closed just thirty years later.
Little remains of it, though there are a few clues at Fort Augustus itself, where you can see pillars from the old bridge across the River Oich (see the photo on the right) and the old pier where the line ended.
Another stretch of it can be found around Invergarry, along the eastern side of Loch Oich, where the path once trod by the line is now considerably muddy and overgrown.
I was out walking with a friend on Saturday, and we undertook the circuit of Loch Oich, a ten mile loop that starts and finishes at Invergarry’s tiny post office. It’s a lovely walk, and was enjoyable even with Saturday’s constantly miserable rain and blustery winds. There are nice views of the loch all round, and glimpses of Invergarry Castle, the Caledonian Canal and more, plus an abandoned old house at Letterfeirn to explore (not that you would, because the sign outside says not to…).
Part of the circuit overlaps with the Great Glen Way, and a considerable stretch involved walking the old railway line, and for a railway geek such as myself this was by far and away the most interesting part.
You can see, for instance, a modest bridge (left), or the tree-infested remains of the two platforms at Invergarry station (somewhat of a misnomer as it is lies the loch from Invergarry and quite a long walk round).
The old station (below) is quite a haunting site.
Mind you, it is one with slightly less sense of abandonment than it previously had, because work is currently underway to restore it as some form of museum (as this poster explains).
Walking further along the line, the circuit we were following took us away from the line and towards the shore, the description mentioning that we would rejoin the line after a tunnel (the only one on this line).
Not keen to miss out on an abandoned railway tunnel, however, we left the path and headed back up to the old line, walking along ground that was at times extremely muddy.
With modest cliff faces green with undergrowth, water pouring down from the hills after several days’ rain, the tunnel soon loomed ahead. It was not a long one – the literal light at the end of the tunnel easily visible from the start – but really interesting to explore.
I had no idea, except from the walk’s instructions, that the old line had a tunnel. Though there were a few tyre tracks and a sign later telling us the stretch would soon form a part of the Great Glen Cycleway, there was a pleasing sense of abandonment.
Much of the Highlands has been historically underdeveloped and under-engineered, so sizeable examples of sites for urban exploration (urbex) are few and far between up here. And perhaps they ought to be “rurex” rather than urbex. But the stretch of old line along Loch Oich was suitably atmospheric and really interesting.
When originally planned, the aim for the line was to continue north to Inverness, creating a mangificent line right through the Great Glen. It never happened, of course, and the terrain on both sides of Loch Ness would have made it a particularly tricky and expensive endeavour.
But given how rightly world famous some of Scotland’s railway lines are, such as the Kyle or Mallaig lines, and given the beauty of the Great Glen between Inverness and Fort William, it’s fair to assume that a Great Glen railway would be up there among the best. It was clear from walking the line on Saturday that the part along Loch Oich would have made for a lovely journey; to have continued along the side of Loch Ness would have been nothing short of breathtaking.
Given that we’re slowly getting into the habit of reopening old railway lines, is it too much to imagine that the Fort Augustus branch line might be a worthy candidate one day? Or that it could even continue north to Inverness?
If doesn’t, or until it does, there’s always the remains of the old line to make the most of.
See the rest of my photos from the Loch Oich circuit on Flickr.
If you’ve grown up anywhere in rural Britain, particularly the Highlands and Islands, you’ll be well familiar with passing place signs on single track roads. They are, I think, one of the most iconic features of Scottish roads.
Growing up in the Uists, they were of course everywhere. Judging a passing so you and an oncoming car stop for the minimum time possible (if at all) is quite an art. This challenge – plus other obstacles such as sheep on the road – more than balance out there not being any traffic lights or roundabouts in the driving test. I remembered they all looked like the one on the left – a square sat on one of its corners, with “PASSING PLACE” written across it.
Then some years ago, mysteriously, they started to appear flat on their sides, like the one in the middle. Was this some change in the rules, or was it some monumental cock-up where someone in local government procurement accidentally ordered several thousand misprinted signs and the decision was taken to just go with them?
This past weekend’s camping trip saw us undertake a two-hour circular walk past the old mill at Altan Na Bradhan and back to the Clachtoll campsite along the coast. The first stretch was along the windy, twisty road out of Clachtoll that was of course punctuated with passing places.
The signs along that stretch included the original version (left), the newer ones (centre) and the bizarre mutation that is the one on the right. I’d never seen those rectangular ones before, and they were clearly something that could only count as a deviation from the norm.
A cursory check online throws up this webpage that details the nature of single track roads, while this thread on a forum confirms that the middle one was indeed a change. As one poster dryly notes,
bureaucrats changed the design because diamond shaped signs are reserved for instructions to tram drivers. The Highlands are of course noted for the number of recently constructed tramlines where this could have caused confusion
Perhaps we need a revolution – a campaign to bring back the corner-based passing place sign and put a definite stop to abhorences like the sign on the right above.
Who’s with me?
And waking up most mornings with frost on the tent (see above) was a sign of how cold it was. As was the teeth-chattering when waking up in the middle of the night.
Speaking to another camper who had a thermometer, we learned it had dropped to minus 6 celsius overnight.
But overall it was perfectly manageable thanks to a thick sleeping bag, sturdy tent, and most importantly a good fleece lining for the sleeping bag, and plenty warm clothes.
On one or two moments, it was even a little too warm, and I had to remove my socks or unzip the sleeping bag slightly.
And waking up to views like this, at Clachtoll, was well worth it.
While the campsite at Badrallach was excellent, the campsite at Clachtoll had great facilities and probably nudged Badrallach for the lovely views including the fantastic beach.
We’re going back there later on in the summer. Hopefully it won’t be quite so cold…
I hate the word “remote”.
It is patronising and culturally biased, because inherent in the use of word “remote” is the rarely added follow-up “…from…”.
In other words, somewhere is deemed remote only in the context of another place. And there lies the flaw: because if you swap starting points, it is the other place that is remote. Therefore any remoteness you perceive is merely a consequence of the viewpoint you start with.
For instance, it’s a lazy cliche that the Highlands is full of remote communities. Yet what people more precisely mean when they say that, is that the Highlands is full of communities that are remote from London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, or some other starting point. Yet if you are in one of these communities, then it is London, Edinburgh or Glasgow that is remote. The journey takes no less time to travel in one direction than the other.
So why don’t you ever hear people say that London is a “remote” city? Sure, it’s one of the world’s best-connected cities in transport terms, but it’s still well over a day’s journey from some parts of the UK. If parts of the Highlands are “remote” from London, then London is itself equally remote from those places.
It’s especially nice when writers from so-called peripheral areas turn these concepts of remoteness on their heads. Kevin McNeil’s The Stornoway Way, which I reviewed here, fixes its centre of gravity very firmly on what it refers to as the “Hebridean metropolis” on the isle of Lewis. As if to prove the point the book contains an upside down map of Scotland. The mainland is portrayed merely as the place over the water, and indeed the main character sets the tone early in the book by saying “we do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond.”
Meanwhile, one of my favourite other books along these lines is Popular Music by the Swedish author Mikael Niemi. The novel tells the story of a boy growing up in the village of Pajala in Tornedalen, a Finnish-speaking community in the far north of Sweden. The author is quoted in the blurb at the back as saying:
No one in Sweden goes to Pajala – most people here have to leave and go south to find jobs or go to college. So I decided to turn the whole world upside down and write it very locally, as if Tornedalen was the centre, the natural state, and pretend that Stockholm and the rest of southern Sweden were these exotic places.
It’s refreshing when we get to see the world upside down like this. And to view such places not as “remote” but rather as “the heart of beyond” as MacNeil has it, or “the centre, the natural state” to quote Niemi, the best thing to do is simply go to them.
One such place is Scoraig, a small village in Wester Ross at the northern shore of the mouth of Little Loch Broom. it has no road access and no mains electricity, so is ripe to be described by those from elsewhere as “remote”.
I have met one or two people from there, and it always sounded like an intriguing place. A small but thriving and sustainable population, Scoraig is cut off from the road network and is accessible from elsewhere only by boat across the loch or by a five mile hike along the shoreline. It was a place, I had variously been told, of pioneering use of renewable energy, a strong sense of community, a healthy degree of self-sufficiency, and more than a little hippy culture. How true all that was, I didn’t know.
Then came our two nights’ camping at Badrallach, the nearest village along the coast and on the closest overland piece of the road network to Scoraig. To fill part of our one full day at Badrallach, Nicole and I walked to Scoraig and back (five miles each way) in beautiful, warm sunshine; not entirely sure what to expect.
The first thing we were rewarded with as we left the tarmac and hit the rough path hewn through the heather, was a magnificent view across the still loch to the mountains of the southern shore, including the imposing beauty of An Teallach. As we walked, it turned into a lovely panorama back along the full length of the loch.
Old ruined crofthouses, piles of modern concrete blocks and wind turbines were the first signs of our reaching Scoraig, and they represented a good metaphor for the regeneration of the area. Passing a few snug houses nestled among trees, the next major landmark was the Scoraig lighthouse that doubles as a visitor information centre. Curiously far inland (I have since discovered it was moved from a more conventional location at the end of the peninsula in the 1950s), it is a nice welcome to the visitor, explaining as it does something of the history of the community and its modern existence (the Scoraig Community Association website also provides a lot of interesting background).
Scoraig had been inhabited for a long time, but a real revival seems to have happened in the past few decades, with a range of people moving there in enough numbers to justify a school. Many people croft and grow their own food, but other home-based industries exist as well. The sea, obviously, is a defining factor for the village, and the jetty is lined with an array of motorboats with which people travel across the water and back, bringing vital supplies.
All the houses seemed attractive, presumably great labours of love. The jetty, though quiet when we stopped just past it to rest and eat lunch, showed evidence of much life. The few people we passed were cheery in their greetings, though they included a fair number of other walkers and visitors too.
On that beautiful, sunny day, Scoraig didn’t seem remote at all. It may have been a long-ish walk from the main road, and no doubt the village was a success only due to the ongoing hard work of its people; but it felt a quite happy, content place. As every place should be, I suppose.
I’d long heard of Clachtoll beach. It is often referred to as one of Scotland’s best beaches, with a stunning location on the west coast of Sutherland. I was vaguely aware of there being a good campsite too, but I’d never been to the area and didn’t really know much about it.
Then, when planning our Easter weekend camping and hiking trip, I twigged it was in Assynt. And I’d certainly heard of Assynt. In fact, anyone with a basic knowledge of modern Scottish politics has heard of Assynt. A sparsely-populated crofting community that seen its fair share of the effects of the Highland clearances and oppressive landowners, the rather haunting remains of the old mill at Altan Na Bradhan and the many ruins of stone houses (below) speak of the harsh conditions of past generations.
The area continued to suffered in recent decades from negligent and absentee landlords, until – to cut a long and fascinating story short – the community bought out the estates. The first buyout, in the 1990s, was a landmark move, and two more followed in the following decade, aided by legislation brought about by the then quite new Scottish Parliament that aimed to help communities buy their own land.
The purchase allowed the community, through the newly formed Assynt Foundation, to better manage the economic prospects of the land. It was now, after all, no longer just a private estate but one owned by the people – and decisions about its development could be made more sensitively, locally and appropriately.
The small museum at the back of the tourist information centre in Lochinver, the main village of the area, is a great way to find out more. It explains much of the general history of Assynt but of course also focusses on the buyout and the impact it has made.
I couldn’t help thinking that there was a rather positive aura about the place, one often lacking in Highland communities. There were plenty signs of new and half-built houses around the area. There seemed to be lot of people around. Lochinver was a bustling and lively village with, among other things, a cracking pub. The people we spoke to, including the chatty and cheerful campsite manager, seemed to exude an “can do” air of optimism about the place. I wondered whether there was something in the buyout that had made people more positive about the prospects for their lives and their community.
If so, it’s potentially a very powerful story of how local ownership and decision-making can really make communities thrive and be proud of themselves. As we discuss here in Scotland the future political direction of our country, it’s worth looking to places like Assynt for some clues about how to answer such questions at a micro-level too.
Of course, it’s hard to reach any firm conclusions based on just a couple of days as a tourist, even if I do live comparatively close by.
And my sense that Assynt was a great place might just have been the weather and the fact it was a beautiful part of the world. From the Stoer lighthouse (above right) to the magnificent views of the mountains via the stunning coastline, it was an area that positively sparkled in the sunshine.
But I think there was something deeper too. A quiet confidence. And that’s a refreshing thing to find.
However, I was really glad Nicole and I stuck to our plans. The weather was – apart from the very cold nights – absolutely superb, with warm, clear days rendering magnificent views of the countryside.
We camped at Clachtoll and at Badrallach on the west coast of the Highlands. The weekend involved a a few good walks, a couple of well-earned meals out, and lots of photography – the blue skies and snow-capped peaks making for some striking shots.
One highlight was the driving. The west coast is a beautiful part of the world – and all less than an hour and a half from home – and we enjoyed just ambling along the road with no particular deadline, stopping when we wanted to for a photograph.
On our way north on the first day, we took a break at a stop overlooking the Dornoch Firth where there were excellent views north (see below), and I noticed that one of the other cars pulled up had a Luxembourgish registration. The two occupants were looking at an interpretation board, and as I passed them I nonchalantly greeted them with “moien“.
Hearing someone greet them in their own tiny national language in the Highlands of Scotland made them just about jump out of their skins. We got talking and they were delighted and surprised to hear that not only had we visited Luxembourg but it was our actual destination rather than somewhere to pass through. In exchange we answered a few of their questions about Inverness, their destination that afternoon.
Pressing on through Bonar Bridge and westwards to the coast of Sutherland, we passed some stunning scenery (above) and the remains of Ardvreck Castle (top right), sitting on the shores of Loch Assynt.
We soon arrived at our destination for the night – the magnificently located Clachtoll campsite, just a short walk from the rightly famous Clachtoll beach.
There, in the calm but cold conditions, we set up camp and spent our first night…
The problem with agreeing to go hillwalking on a certain date is that you can’t wimp out when the weather forecast is rubbish. Our plan was to do the Coulags circuit, which runs northwest from near Achnashellach. According to MWIS the prognosis was not good, though: below zero temperatures at summits, and as low as minus 22 Celsius with the aid of the wind. Admittedly the circuit wouldn’t be take us above 600m, but with all the snow and cold weather of late, it still wouldn’t be a day for shorts and t-shirts.
With extra layers of clothes we managed to lock out the cold, thankfully, and we were rewarded with a magnificent walk. It is a stunningly beautiful part of the word, and very desolate, with not another walker to be seen. The only company came in the form of two deer we spotted early on, and the evidence of past walkers at a bothy.
The path providing some great views of Munros and at one point a view northwest towards what we assumed was Loch Torridon or thereabouts. There was plenty snow around on the ground, and some lochs were partly frozen, providing some great photo opportunities. But if you hung around too long in one spot with gloves off and camera in hand, the icy wind was bitter and uncompromising.
But sometimes you have to battle hard for the rewards, and I was moderately pleased with my photo haul. Check out the results here on Flickr.
As if getting an email from Alain de Botton wasn’t a surreal enough experience recently, I received an offer the other day to represent Great Britain at football.
The best explanation is simply to share the email I received:
We’ve no met but here goes something a bit different. You might be interested, you might no.
There is a European Writers football tournament in June (18th – 24th) in Israel. The GB team have had some call offs. Firstly, do you play fitba? And would you be interested in playing in Haifa in June? Cost is 250 euros per player, all other costs covered by Israeli hosts.
Mad, I know, but let me ken if this is for you, or if you need more info.
My surprise was obvious. For a start, I’m not very good at football, but also I’m hardly a prolific or well-known writer. For the barrel to be scraped sufficiently for me to be a potential player, the call-offs must have been numbering in the tens of thousands. Has there been a flu epidemic?
I had indeed not met Matthew, nor did I recognise his name. But I did discover that he is the author of a book I’ve often flicked through but never read – But N Ben A Go Go, the first science fiction work ever to be written in Scots.
I can’t find much information online about the European Writers football tournament (which makes me think it might perhaps be a slight level or two below the European Championships), but did find this report in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz about a previous tournament.
The idea of a writers’ football match also brings to mind the suitably absurd Monty Python sketch about German and Greek philosophers squaring up on the football pitch.
On a more serious note, at the back of my mind linger a couple of ethical dilemmas. While I am not convinced I fully support the BDS movement with regards to Israel I still do have concerns about going there. And also, I’m not sure if a passionate supporter of Scottish independence such as myself could really square his conscience with representing Great Britain.
Maybe the call will come again whenever the tournament is next held. By then, perhaps, I’ll have more than one three year old book to my name…
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