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The Scottish Highlands

It began as it always begins: 'When can we go?', 'don't know. What do you want to do?', 'Well what would the kids like? What did we do last year? I can't remember' 'Not sure. Home or abroad?', 'depends on when we can go', 'but we don't know when we can go', 'I know!'. And so on.

Choosing a holiday destination is never easy in our house. My partner's acting career means that we can never be sure of when we can sneak off for a bit of sun or adventure and this summer was no different. The first 2 weeks of July are only just bearable. A combination of the school year end and intense holiday googling; a perfect storm of things I don't want to be involved in.

Just about the only thing we could agree on was that we had always wanted to spend some proper time in the Highlands of Scotland. My partner is from Fife and we are lucky to get to Scotland at least once a year to see family, but as yet we had not managed to get any real time in the heart of the country. So, after much toing and froing, debate and ignoring of the kids we decided that this was the summer we would do it, despite the apparent lack of giant waterslides and swimming pools.

With just a couple of weeks before departure we started looking for places to stay all over the Highlands, but it was slim pickings. The Isle of Mull, Skye, Oban, the Cairngorms; wherever we looked it was booked. Why did everyone have the same idea as us? Turns out it was one of the busiest years for tourists ever and we should have been better prepared, but we did finally find a lodge near Spean Bridge, at the sweet little Gairlochy Holiday Park. It made the perfect base for a week of exploration.

We started our trip to Gairlochy from Kinghorn in Fife, having visited family there.  It's a sweet little seaside town, very popular in it's heyday and I love it and have a real affection for it. However, like many coastal towns across the UK, it has seen a decline in visitors and so stands somewhat lonely on the Fife coastal trail.  If you were to make a stop there, make sure it is early in the day because you'll get to see the island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth at it's most atmospheric (so long as it's not grey and raining, which it probably will be).

The island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth, as seen from Kinghorn. The island has a very interesting history but is (as far as I know), impossible for the average englishman to get to. It is home to puffins, seals and of course, the lighthouse.

The island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth, as seen from Kinghorn. The island has a very interesting history but is (as far as I know), impossible for the average englishman to get to. It is home to puffins, seals and of course, the lighthouse.

We started our trip on a rainy saturday afternoon, leaving Kinghorn and travelling to Gairlochy along the A9. The long and winding road takes you past and through some wonderfully scottish sounding towns such as Dunkeld, Killiecrankie and Dalwhinnie as it skirts the Cairngorms.  It must be one of the most picturesque roads in the country and we were blessed with wonderful views on the 3 hour journey. Highland roads fortunately have many laybys where you can stop for a minute or two and absorb the particular splendour that has presented itself. Many of my photos were taken in such circumstances; quick grab shots on our way to other places.

Taken somewhere on the A9

Taken somewhere on the A9

My favourite spot on the A9. Wish I could remember where it was.

My favourite spot on the A9. Wish I could remember where it was.

We arrived at the holiday park mid-evening, hungry and in the rain, so we quickly got a spag' bol' on the go and took a moment to look at the view from our little terrace. To the south we were told Ben Nevis could be seen, but the clouds never cleared from the peak to reveal it. So I'm afraid I don't have a shot to show you of the highest peak in Britain, which seems daft considering it was just few miles away, but next time... That evening we planned the next day's trip to the coastal town of Plockton and got a good night's sleep (aided by our blissfully quiet surroundings and a little scottish gin).

Plockton is known as the location for the TV series Hamish Macbeth and Sharon stayed there for a short while when she appeared in an episode or two.  We took the A87, past Loch Cluanie (big bit of water), stared longingly at the Cluanie Inn as I filled up with fuel next door and carried on driving along the foot of 5 peaks, known as the Five Sisters. Our research (Sharon's), had suggested we view them from Ratagan, a small village across Loch Duich so we hung a left at Invershiel and took the road to Ratagan. 5 mins later we were presented with an amazing view, but shite weather and terrible light. So, no great shots of the Five Sisters, but here's one anyway so you can see something of their splendour.

Don't say it. There are definitely only five. Five!

Don't say it. There are definitely only five. Five!

There wasn't much to hang about for so we went quickly on our way (by the way, you're not far from Skye here and if you want to take the small 'romantic' Skye Ferry across to the Isle, carry on down this route and you'll get to the ferry. It only takes 6 cars I think, but it does the short trip continuously and you might even get to cross with the famous ferry dog).

Onwards to Plockton, alongside Loch Duich, passing the fabulous Eilean Donan Castle (terrible light, no photos), past the All the Goodness Bakery (where you can pick up a good cake and coffee and also argue with a local and end up calling each other arseholes), and turned right at Kyle of Lochalsh, leaving a view of the Skye Bridge behind us. We had been incredibly resourceful (Sharon) and had booked a table at The Plockton Inn so, we had a good lunch before taking a look around (I'm pleased to say we can recommend the Plockton Inn. Scottish food is often, well, I'm sure it's reputation precedes me).

Plockton harbour/bay/boat park... not sure what to call it. Lovely anyway.

Plockton harbour/bay/boat park... not sure what to call it. Lovely anyway.

Plockton really is a lovely little village. A very picturesque walk around the beautiful bay with pretty islands dotted around; it is idyllic.  We walked over to the tiny tidal island and got these shots (word of warning though, the tide comes in quick). You can even take a boat trip to look for seals.

I'm sure I could see tiny Robby Carlyle over there

I'm sure I could see tiny Robby Carlyle over there

Tour guide Sharon remembered that there was a coral beach nearby that we should see, so we asked about and got directions; go out of town, right at the fork, down the lane, left at the farmhouse, right at the airstrip, park up and follow the footpath. We walked through gorse, mud and heather, got into several arguments with midges, but it was so worth it. The rain was awful, but the beach was amazing. Beautiful turquoise waters, tiny pieces of coral instead of sand and more tiny islands. The rain really limited the photography I could do, but it also created an amazing light and some lovely opportunities.

My eldest son, Leo, on the Coral Beach.

My eldest son, Leo, on the Coral Beach.

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He might look easy osey here, but believe me, that sheep turned.

He might look easy osey here, but believe me, that sheep turned.

We found this little fella all on his lonesome. He came charging at me after Sharon and Zac and found him, but turns out he was just looking for company. I'd never stroked a sheep before, but he then wouldn't leave me alone, pursuing me off the island across the beach. Concerned about the kind of company he might be after, we left, somewhat sheepishly.

Coral beach. As we left, I turned around and got this lovely shot. A secret seaside garden.

Coral beach. As we left, I turned around and got this lovely shot. A secret seaside garden.

It just rained, rained and rained, but Scotland is so beautiful that it didn't dim our enthusiasm. We chased rainbows all the way home, pulling over to get this shot...

It just rained, rained and rained, but Scotland is so beautiful that it didn't dim our enthusiasm. We chased rainbows all the way home, pulling over to get this shot...

...and later, this one.

...and later, this one.

Sharon, Leo and I had been really well protected against the rain with waterproof trousers, coats and hats. Little Zac however had a cheapy non-waterproof paperlike jacket and no hat. Poor thing. He came home looking like a baby rabbit had got lost in a river, so the next day we thought it best to get him something half decent. Fort William is described as the gateway to the Highlands, being the nearest town to Ben Nevis, but what a disappointment. A pretty grotty high street, a smattering of tourists not quite sure of what they're supposed to do or look at, nowhere good to eat and an atmosphere of something foreboding. I'm sure that on the right day there is joy to be found there, but I wouldn't search too hard.

We ventured a couple of miles away to a restaurant in search of a hearty lunch. It had been well reviewed so we were hopeful, but it didn't take long for those hopes to be dashed. I won't go into details, but i think the funeral reception in the next room was being held for our main courses. There was one highlight in the place though, meeting a Dutch walker who had been up in the hills for the last 3 weeks and this was her first trip down to civilisation. She was just grateful for some real(ish) food. Amazingly she interjected when we were blowing into bottles making tunes and said that she could help, as she played 'the bottles' in an orchestra of some description. I'm sure it's not a professional position, but it tickled us.

We decided to nip down the road and take a look at Glen Coe in the anticipation of spending a full day there later in the week. Again, it was a glorious drive down the A82 along Loch Eil and Loch Even and up through Glen Coe to the well presented visitors centre. Nothing grand, but a nice gift shop with an excellent guide book and most importantly, ice creams.  We took our first view of Glen Coe and decided yes, we were definitely coming back.

In fact, we came back the very next day. I'd picked up a copy of the guide book and it described several family friendly walks we could take so off we went, starting at the Lochan Trails. 3 walks all starting from a car park under the trees. The Lochan is a small, man-made Loch surrounded by planted conifer and maples. It was created by a famous Canadian businessman for his wife, who longed for the familiar landscape of home. And you can tell. It really does feel like you're in the Rocky's or a Canadian valley. Job done I reckon. Here's a couple of shots.

The Lochan. Picture postcard stuff.

The Lochan. Picture postcard stuff.

Sharon and the boys looking for bears

Sharon and the boys looking for bears

After the Lochan we moved on to An Torr Woods and Signal Rock. A pleasant walk with a beautiful crossing over the River Coe and Signal Rock at the end of it was straight out of Lord of the Rings. A rocky outcrop, used as a gathering place in emergencies by the MacDonald Clan and likely to have been the location of a beacon for many years. You could imagine Gandalf camping at the top or Frodo falling off it, as Leo nearly did. To cap it all, we watched a pair of Golden Eagles circling above us as we got there. Magical.

The crossing over the River Coe

The crossing over the River Coe

And so, onwards to the main valley of Glen Coe.  This is where the weather turned bad and to be honest ruined some of the best shots, but as ever, the light and rain together still produced some great scenes. It was pretty busy on the road and there are a lot of laybys to use to take in the splendour of the valley, but Sharon and I longed to be walking on the peaks (in better weather mind), breathing the mountain air and looking down on the poor plebs that could only look up at us from their metal boxes.  Not sure the kids would have agreed, but still.

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By now we were all pretty hungry and we endeavoured to find something good on the way home. We ended up scouting a couple of places near where we were staying and ended up at the Russell's Restaurant, which I am happy to report was excellent. We felt a little like we were in a fishbowl as they sat us 2 inches from where the staff gather and we were the only ones in there, but hey, we were glad for a decent meal.

That was tuesday. On Wednesday we did the 3 hour drive to Skye and by pure coincidence, it happened to be Highland Games day.  We took the same route as Plockton, passing the same landmarks as a couple of days ago until we approached the Skye Bridge. It's no Golden Gate Bridge, but it's pretty good looking anyhow.

Our only issue with the Highland Games was the bloody weather. It was beautiful! We were neither dressed nor prepared for it in anyway and it totally buggered up the games for us. Too hot, kids complaining about wearing jeans and jumpers and no shade. Ah well. We gave in and ended up having a look around Portree and then drove up to see the Old Man of Storr. The Storr is a rocky outcrop with pinnacles of rock that stand up and face the beautiful landscape. The Old Man is the tallest of them.  We parked up, walked steeply uphill for 45 minutes or so until we got halfway and then checked out the view. It was stunning and we hadn't even got to the top. Sharon and I were keen to get to the Storr, but we gave in to the boys and walked them back down. Got this shot from our viewpoint however:

Taken with my iPhone

Taken with my iPhone

And that was the last landscape shot I took. The next day we took a boat trip on Loch Shiel next to the Glenfinnan viaduct (made famous by the Harry Potter films), which was enjoyable but cold and pretty uneventful, before deciding that the next day we would travel down to Glasgow and spend time with family.

We had not quite known what to expect from a family tour like this. It was something of unknown territory for us, but I can honestly say that it was fantastic and we all got a lot out of it.  Sure, the kids were a little tired of being in the car after 6 days, but they had done really well and we had some great family moments together.  Of course, the landscape was the star of the show. It really could make your jaw drop sometimes and I am so pleased to have had the chance to do some photography. I would love to return one day. Though I did manage to get some nice shots, I never had more than few moments to get them and of course, couldn't take the time to create my own reality in the images. But I wouldn't change that; this trip was about spending time with each other and experiencing the hills and mountains together. Mission accomplished.