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Category: 2013 Adventure

The final stretch, but we didn’t know it

The final stretch, but we didn’t know it

We had a few days before we needed to set off south to a house sit we had planned in Sheffield.  I had hoped to explore near the town of Shieldaig that we all loved so much, as always thinking of where we may want to put roots down one day.  Unfortunately the weather was really not kind on that west coast, but was looking promising nearer to Inverness, so we decided we’d  go that way instead and relegated the west coast to ‘places to revisit’ category.

On the way there we chased lots of waterfalls, one at Corrieshalloch Gorge which was incredibly impressive, but the parking conditions – it was busy and we had to take up a coach spot so I felt worried we’d get a ticket – meant that we didn’t hang around too long.  Further along the road we stopped to have lunch at Rogie falls and had a great walk out there too.  It was all rather busy, but enjoyable nonetheless.  We were a bit early for the salmon leaping, even though some of the information boards said we might see them.  We looked for a long time, but didn’t manage to catch a glimpse.

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At Rogie Falls

Once in the Inverness area we knew there were a couple of historical sites we’d like to visit and we made ourselves quite busy in our last days on the road.  Culloden, where the last battle between the English and Scottish was fought is well worth a visit.  Our knowledge of this time has got a little better over the past year, and there was plenty of information in the visitors centre to help set the scene of the battle.  After reading and learning about the battle you can go out onto the field and listen to an audio guide telling you all about it.  Quite a sobering place.1236240_10151863769374134_2042356414_n

Memorial cairn at Culloden

Fort George was set up after Culloden by the English as a place to help keep the Scots in line!  It’s still used as a military base and we saw plenty of soldiers training when we visited.  There are some Georgian displays with weapons and a ‘real history’ talk with someone dressed up as a soldier from the period.  Marcus is our military nut, but he’s more interested in modern times (ww1 onwards) so he was unimpressed by old guns and pikes Winking smile  We did like the museum of the Highlanders which documented their history and most importantly, had a place Marcus could dress up!

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Fort George – Marcus enjoyed it here immensely!

We’d done lots of whisky tasting and learning about how that was made a few months ago, but we knew there was also a small brewery in the area and thought that would be an interesting thing to see how it compared.  The Black Isle brewery is tiny and we struggled to find it really, but once there were given a lovely free tour by the very friendly lady on that day.  Amazing to see small business in action!  We, of course, had to sample the wares and since James was driving he couldn’t really do too much tasting on site.  So we got a selection to bring back with us.

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*hic*

Our time in Scotland was coming to an end.  We knew it would take a couple of days to get to our house sit so we set off south.  We spent a night at the same loch we’d visited on the way up, mostly because it was so pretty and we knew we could safely stop there.  It’s much easier to stop when you’re further north than it is in the central and southern areas.  We did quite a lot of talking while there, especially as James and I seemed to have independently come to the same idea that we should consider stopping travelling, seeing if we could get a job and house and get M’s teeth sorted.  We knew we wanted to travel again so it felt right to stop earlier now to set the groundwork to get off as soon as possible afterwards.  So it was quite a weird few days as we trundled back to Sheffield.  I felt we should have marked our last day on the road with something special, but since we didn’t know it until it was there, we didn’t! 

However, even though we headed back to ‘normal’ life, we were far from normal!  The seeds of travel had been sown and we’re raring to get going again!

Free attractions in the north west of Scotland

Free attractions in the north west of Scotland

When you’re this far north in Scotland, the tourist sites are few and far between.  We did, however, happen upon three rather good places to note.  Friends of ours who had done a similar route to us had given us some ideas for free places to explore and stop near, and sometimes recommendation is the best way to go!

Smoo cave is right at the top of the country and is a huge cave that you can walk down in to.  It’s free to enter, although at certain times I think there is a tour you can pay to be part of.  we all loved walking into the cave to see the waterfall inside, so powerful and made us really appreciate how a cave can get to be that big!

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Inside Smoo Cave

Knockan Crag is one for the geology buffs.  It’s a huge national nature reserve with plenty of parking, toilets and an unmanned visitor centre.  There are marked trails to walk along too.  Knockan Crag is important as it’s an area that helped to shape the thinking of geologists due to the Moine Thrust.  There are loads of displays in the visitor centre with some hands on interactive stuff to keep the kids entertained.  We did the short walk as it was very cold when we were there, I’d have liked to do more if it wasn’t so cold as the views were spectacular.1208604_438473536265659_1218144076_n

The view from the trail at Knockan Crag

Beinn Eighe is another national nature reserve and like Knockan Crag has lots for the family to do.  It has an indoor visitor centre and small shop.  It’s displays are more about the wildlife in the area, so lots about birds and mammals you may see.  Again there are some self guided trails that start from really small, aimed at really small kids with puzzles along the way, to a bit further with more information on wildlife.  We had some lovely weather when we visited and managed a good walk.  I really do like these centres where you just go and do your thing easily!

All three of the above sights are free to enter and free to park.  Make sure you have a good map of the area like this one if you’re planning to drive and explore Scotland (If you’re in the US click here).

If you’re at all interested in the highlights of Scottish Nature and you’re deep into the highlands, then I would thoroughly recommend a visit!  I’m sure there are more to add to this list too, but these were where we visited and can give first hand recommendations for.

Transport options for exploring Scotland

Transport options for exploring Scotland

We had a wonderful time exploring Scotland and it is absolutely one of my favourite places to visit.  We were lucky in that we had our own transport to get us to some out of the way places, but if you don’t have your own car, what options are available to use?

Buses

Buses are great to get between towns and cities or around some of the larger cities like Edinburgh.  They are really easy to navigate, but try and have the correct change for getting on the bus as many drivers don’t like or are unable to give change out from large notes.

While in big cities another, albeit pricier option, is to explore via the tourist buses.  While they can be very expensive, the tickets tend to last for 24 hours and can be a good option if you are just exploring a small area and you’re limited on time.

Trains

Trains can be a great way of covering a lot of distance quickly and can even get you from the cities of the central belt to the islands without having to need your own transport.  Mallaig is easily accessible by train and you would even go over the viaduct that they use in the Harry Potter films!  Then you can get ferries to the Small Isles (Rum, Eigg, Muck or Canna) or even to Skye.  It’s a world away from the cities.

Car Hire

If you have grand plans for getting out in the countryside and seeing some of the more remote areas of Scotland then car hire would be a great idea.  It also provides much more flexibility which when dealing with the adverse weather of Scotland can’t be a bad plan!  Also if you’re travelling with children it might work out better value than having to constantly pay for public transport tickets.  Also many sights might only be reachable by car such as the many Scottish castles.

Although perhaps if you’re planning to sample all of the delights of Scotland, a mixture of all three modes of transport will work well.  After all, you don’t want to miss out on the whisky scene or the wilds of Scotland!

Single track road, the only way to go

Single track road, the only way to go

After we’d left John O’Groats we couldn’t travel any further north so we had to continue west along the top coast.  There were some pretty grotty towns up that way and I have to say it isn’t a place I’d like to live, much as I do love Scotland.  All grey and depressing looking.

The further west you go it starts to get that wild look again and the hills rise up out of nowhere.   I remember stopping at a layby and looking out to the mountains and just seeing this huge one looming in the distance so we spent some time trying to work out which one it was.  I can’t remember now, though we did work it out.

The roads started to be increasingly single track now which meant it was a lot harder for James and required a lot of concentration.  We’d decided on a stop not too far today as James had been unwell and we didn’t want to push him, plus the laybys were few and far between this far north.  The wind was getting stronger and we also didn’t want to be too exposed.  We chose a spot down by the Kyle of Tongue, right by the water.  It was very beautiful and we spent ages just watching the clouds looking broody over those hills and enjoying the scenery.

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Just gorgeous, but that weather was starting to turn even worse!

As it got darker, and the possibility of changing our location faded, the wind started to increase and stayed that way all night.  We moved the van a little so it wasn’t right by the water and a bit sheltered from the full force of the wind.  I couldn’t sleep At All, and kept having visions of the water level rising and us not knowing, or the wind blowing us right over.  It was soooo dark up there too, no street lamps, nothing. 

I was so glad when it was morning and the wind died down again!

Changing plans

Changing plans

We had found our perfect spot, a village we loved the look of.  We’d spent the previous evening just doing stuff, watching films, crafting (Alex had learnt how to make friendship bracelets and so was on a mission to make lots!), and I’d even managed to spot an animal I’d never seen in the wild before – an otter.  I was loving this spot, loving the area, loving being just off the tourist trail.

Then I managed to get a bit of signal and a text message came in.  A payment I’d not expected had come out of the bank and we’d gone overdrawn.  Damn!  Back to reality with a bump!  It wasn’t a huge issue though, just a misunderstanding, I just needed to sort it before the end of the banking day.

Except there was no internet signal and all my banking was done online!  I tried and tried but the signal would not come.  It was important to get this sorted so we knew we’d need to drive and get back into the land of the living, or at least 3G signal!

As the single track roads we’d driven on the day before became proper sized roads with much more traffic it felt kind of odd.  I don’t think I realised quite how off the track we’d gone!  I wasn’t keen on it.  We pulled over as soon as signal came back, sorted out the important bits and moved on.  We were also in need of a campsite stop to shower and empty the toilet, another not so pleasant aspect of camper life, so we kept heading away from the place we found and loved to get to the other side of Scotland.

As always happens, we look a day or so ahead, to keep ourselves on track for the bits we wanted to do.  We knew we wanted to go to John o’Groats which is one of the most northerly towns in Scotland.  It’s a long way away from many great things and the scenery up there isn’t as nice as the west coast, so we decided we’d get this last big thing done while we were on the right side of the country.  It meant we could then take our time going across the top coast of Scotland and back to that west coast, to the scenery and quiet.

It was a long drive there, a long boring drive and once you get to that last town in Scotland and see the sign, you do kind of wonder why you bothered!  It’s not the best place in the world, run down and not much to do, but we felt like we should do it since we were at the other end of the country not that long ago.

We now couldn’t go any further north.  It was all downhill from here!

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We reached the top of Scotland!