Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Scotland #3: Western Highlands

Fort William is a major tourist centre due to its location and was quite crowded as a result. The main street is a pedestrian only zone so it's quite pleasant to wander along. Plenty of shops (particularly for the outdoor adventurous types), pubs and cafes. It's also the gateway to the western Highlands with Ben Nevis close by, the lochs and the coast not far away.It's also at the other end, to Inverness, of the Caledonian Canal. Neptune's Staircase, just out of town, is a series of 8 locks which lift canal traffic 20 metres up, if they're heading north. 20 metres down if they've come from Inverness.
One of the first things I did was take a ride on the Hogwarts Express.

Hogwarts Express

The Jacobite steam train (which is the Hogwarts Express) runs from Fort William to Mallaig, on the east coast. From Mallaig you can take the ferry to Skye. The train journey takes you past some wonderful scenery as it trundles along the coast, through the mountains, alongside lochs. Unfortunately the windows don't open so photos have to be taken through glass.

Over, under, sideways, down

It also crosses the Glenfinnan Viaduct which fans of the Harry Potter films should recognise.

Glenfinnian Viaduct

The viaduct was built at the end of the 1800s: opened 1901 I think. It's made of unreinforced concrete and has 21 arches. It looks impressive as it marches across the valley.

Mallaig is a pretty little harbour town. You get about an hour to wander around before the train returns to Fort William. I watched some fishermen unloading their boat - boxes and boxes of ice-packed goodies.
Just on that, Scotland has great seafood. The salmon is the best I've had anywhere and the shellfish are huge and plentiful. Not cheap though.

Glenfinnan is an interesting place. It's where Bonnie Prince Charlie first landed in 1745 in his failed attempt to restore the Jacobite monarchy.

The Prince's Cairn

As well as the viaduct, there's an impressive monument to the Highlanders who helped him. The village is tiny but it gets a lot of visitors. It's in a lovely place too, right on the edge of Loch Sheil.

Glenfinnan Monument

I decided I'd better do the trip across to Skye. There are two ways to get there: the ferry from Mallaig and the road bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh. I chose to take the ferry as it's closer to where I was staying. I think if you really want to see Skye you need to be prepared to shell out big bucks for a hotel and actually stay on the island. The ferry lands at the south end of Skye and I had about 6 hours before it sailed back to the mainland. That gave me just enough time to drive to Portree, the island's main town, have something to eat and drive back to the ferry. Consequently, I didn't see any of the northern half of the island where all the really spectacular scenery is. Still, I did see some very pretty coastline areas.


And lots of sheep.


I decided to try the drive to Kyle of Lochalsh and maybe take the bridge across the Skye and see some more of the island. Haha, eight hours later and I made it as far as Dornie (maybe 20 or so miles from Kyle) before I turned back. It's a spectacular drive through the Highlands though. It took me that long because I kept stopping to take in the views.


At Dornie is the castle of Eilean Donan.

Eilean Donan Castle

I think this castle features on every second postcard you see in Scotland. Sadly the tide was out so I couldn't get the classic "castle reflected in the water" shot. It was closed by the time I got there but the gates where still open so I was able to wander around the outside. When the tide's in the castle is cut off from the mainland and is accessible only via a stone footbridge. The bridge is a later construction as the original one was destroyed. The castle itself dates back to the 13th century and was originally built as a defence against Viking raiders. It then became a clan stronghold (Clan Macrae I think) and has been subjected to many attacks as a result. It's been much restored over the years. One of its claims to fame is the left-handed spiral staircase: which I didn't see as it was closed. Just about every other spiral staircase anywhere is right-handed to leave the sword arm free for swinging.

After the Highlands I wandered down to the Loch Lomond area. This is the biggest, by surface area, body of fresh water in the UK. I stayed about 20 minutes outside of Glasgow and wandered in to check it out. It's just a city, nothing special. However, it wasn't as dark, gloomy and dangerous as I was expecting. I heard a story about how fanatical the people are about their football teams that's worth sharing I think. Glasgow is dominated by 2 teams: Rangers (who play in blue) and Celtic (green). There's also an UK supermarket chain, Asda, which also has a green livery. Apparently Asda wanted to open a store in a rabid Rangers area. No go unless the store changed its colour. I don't know what the end result was but it just goes to show how fanatical people can be about their football.
Also, the Glaswegian accent is practically indecipherable.

I took a cruise on Loch Lomond. It's very pretty but, after the Highland lochs, was somehow a bit too manicured and 'safe'. The weather, surprise surprise, was atrocious. It started off sunny, then we were subjected to heavy rain and hail. Thunder and lightning too. Then sunshine again. Nevertheless it was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon watching the loch slide by.

Loch Lomond

There are numerous stately homes along the loch shores: most are now luxury hotels or golf clubs.

Loch Lomond Golf Club

This one is Rossdhu House, formerly the seat of Clan Colquhoun; now the Loch Lomond Golf Club.

Then I drove back to Liverpool.

Scotland is a fascinating place. It's not somewhere you'd go for the weather though, unless you like clouds, rain, wind and chill. I saw lots of walkers and touring cyclists, especially in the Highlands. It might be healthy and make them feel very self-righteous, but it can't be fun being constantly cold and wet.
The food is excellent, especially if you like seafood. I had a seafood platter in a restaurant in Kinlochleven (near Fort William) that had to be seen to be believed: half a lobster, half a crab, 6 huge langoustines (like big prawns or even yabbies) and dozens (literally dozens) of mussels and clams. I couldn't finish it by a long shot. I tried haggis but only managed a couple of mouthfuls. The taste was okay but the texture, and the thought of what was in it, defeated me.
If you're going to Scotland you must get to the Highlands. Magnificent scenery everywhere you look.

Loch Shiel


Scotland #2: a tale of two hotels

From Inverness I headed south-west, along the Great Glen, to Fort William. Fort William is the only other town of any size in the Highlands, besides Inverness, and is more or less at the foot of the Ben Nevis range. It sits on the edge of Loch Linnhe, Scotland's longest sea loch. It's an incredibly picturesque part of the world.
Accommodation in Fort William was non-existent because of the annual mountain bike World Cup - as usual, I hadn't done my homework! However, I found two hotels about 20 minutes south, along Loch Linnhe, so was able to park myself in the area for a week. I don't normally do hotel reviews but will make an exception here as the difference between the two hotels was unbelievable.
The first, the Holly Tree, was as a hotel should be: comfortable, spacious room, excellent restaurant (seafood to die for!), friendly helpful staff and great views across the loch. Well, they would have been great views if not for the low cloud blanketing everything out. I spent 2 nights/one day there and used it as a rest day basically. I pretty much spent the day in the bar area; playing on the laptop, reading and chatting with the staff. The weather was rubbish so there was no incentive to go sightseeing. The place was booked out for the rest of the week so I had to move on.... the Stewart Hotel, about 5 minutes down the road in a little place called Glen Duror, still on Loch Linnhe. The hotel is a couple of miles inland from the loch but still has nice views across farmland with the loch in the far distance. This place makes Fawlty Towers look good. I'd booked in for 4 nights through Expedia so it was paid for in advance. I'd have left otherwise. For the first 2 nights/3 days there was no hot water. At first, this was blamed on the Contiki coach group that was there on the first night (for using all the hot water), but later it was admitted that the boiler was broken. The lack of urgency about getting it fixed was mind boggling.
The whole time I was there my room was not cleaned once. The reason I was given was that I had the room key. Huh? When I asked why the cleaning staff didn't have a master key I was met with blank stares. As far as I could make out there is no cleaning staff.
Breakfast time was a joke. Dirty/used dishes weren't cleared away until everyone had finished and left the restaurant area. When I arrived for breakfast, about 8am, the Contiki group were just loading themselves on to their coach. The breakfast room was still full of their breakfast remains. There was literally nowhere to sit. The bar area was also littered, still, with the night before's dirty glasses. The same thing happened again the next night/morning except this time it was a coach group of French tourists. I heard someone ask for scrambled eggs, instead of the poached variety served as standard. Not possible was the reply. Not possible? Ridiculous. After the first morning I gave up on breakfast, just had cereal and coffee. Even the coffee pot had old coffee stains on it.
The owner/manager had taken off to London for the weekend and left 3 young guys in charge. They were it as far as staff goes and were totally clueless. I overheard one couple demanding a partial refund due to the lack of hot water and the breakfast situation but the "reception" guy (who'd quickly changed from being the "breakfast" guy) kept saying he wasn't authorised to give refunds. The customer demanded to speak to the manager, he wasn't there. So he demanded that he speak to him on the phone. The reception guy called him but then hung up. "He doesn't want to speak to you." Needless to say, that couple left in a fury. I also overheard, twice, the reception guy try to double charge people who'd paid in advance: here's the bill, you can pay cash please.
(I heard all this because the reception/lounge area was the only place there was a wifi signal so I was sat there with my laptop.)
I think the hotel has some sort of arrangement with coach companies who bring their coach loads in for an overnight stay. I can't imagine how else they could stay in business.

I'm not making this up.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


I've seen quite a bit of the place since my last post and should have updated more regularly, sorry.
I didn't see much of Edinburgh in the end, mainly due to the weather. Instead of sheltering in a pub in town I ventured out to Stirling, further up the Forth river, to check out the castle there. Unlike the one in Edinburgh, it wasn't closed for safety reasons. Like Edinburgh, Stirling castle sits on a rocky outcrop overlooking the surrounding area. Numerous Scottish monarchs were crowned here - Stirling was the royal capital for a long time. Most of the current structure dates to the 1500s and the Stuart kings. It's more like a collection of large houses than a castle as such. Inside, particularly the Great Hall and the chapel, was quite disappointing as the rooms are empty. No furniture, wall decorations, religious icons, weapons displays, etc.

Robert the Bruce

Robert the Bruce statue in the castle grounds. The enormous Wallace monument is nearby but I didn't visit it.

I spent one very pleasant afternoon with a flickr friend, Devoran, who lives across the Forth from Edinburgh. We went into the nearby town of Aberdour and checked out the beach and the castle.

Aberdour Castle

Aberdour is one of the oldest castles still standing in Scotland apparently.
It wasn't really beach weather but we had fun anyway :)

I also took a cruise along the Firth of Forth to Inchcolm island where there's an old abbey.

Inchcolm Abbey

The current abbey dates back to the 1400s but there's been an abbey there since the 1120s. It was built by Alexander I who took shelter on the island during a storm. The only person there was an old hermit and Alexander promised to build him an abbey, which he did. There's no record of whether the hermit appreciated this or not.

The Firth is dotted with small islands which provide homes for the many sea birds in these parts. Inch is the Scottish word for island. There are apparently Puffins that nest there but I didn't see any. There's also a small lighthouse, seemingly standing in the water, which provides warning about the nasty reef below it.

Wee lighthouse for wee boats

The cruise takes you under the Forth Rail Bridge, one of two bridges spanning the Firth of Forth, about 20 miles from Edinburgh itself.

Forth rail bridge

Both bridges were marvels of engineering in their time. The rail bridge is more interesting to look at than the road bridge. I think anyway.

From Edinburgh I headed north to Inverness, via St Andrews. I don't play golf but my father does. Even so, the courses at St Andrews (there are seven of them at the Royal and Ancient) are lovely to look at. Apparently you have to book months in advance to get a game there.

Swilcan Bridge

Inverness is in the Highlands, at the top end of Loch Ness. The town itself is quite large but I didn't spend much time there as I did a lot of day trips to various places in the area.
John o' Groats was a must, seeing as I was at Land's End a while ago.

The photo with the signpost, almost.

This end of the UK is quieter than the other end. There's no fairground/theme park for the youngsters and the old hotel is closed. The signpost (which is operated by a private photography firm) was also closed because I got there after 5pm. Across the Pentland Firth is the island of Stroma, now abandoned, and the Orkneys beyond that. You'd have to be tough to live in this area: it's cold and windy and quite isolated.


Dunnet Head, just further along the road, is actually the most northerly point of the UK mainland.

The coastal road from Inverness to John o'Groats is a very pretty drive. Coastal villages, farms and spectacular views all the way.


Many of the villages were set up during The Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. The farmers (crofters) who'd lived in the Highlands for centuries were forcibly removed (cleared) from their farms by the landholders to make way for sheep. Many Scots left the country altogether, emigrating to places like Liverpool and the US. Consequently the Highland population decreased dramatically and has never recovered. The Clearances also helped destroy the clan system of social organisation that had ruled Scottish life for so long beforehand.
The Duke of Sutherland was probably the most ruthless of the Clearance landlords. Ironically, on a hill behind one of the towns in the Sutherland area, there's a 100 foot statue of the Duke - put there by the locals.

A visit to Inverness is not complete without a cruise on Loch Ness. The one I took lasts for 3 hours and goes down to Urquhart Castle and back. The Loch actually now forms part of the Caledonian Canal which dissects the Highlands from north-east to south-west.

Dochgarroch Loch

It follows the Great Glen, a natural glacial fissure which crosses the country along the same line. The Canal is 62 miles long but two-thirds of it are natural lochs (Dochfour, Oich, Ness and Lochy).
Loch Ness is the largest, by volume, body of fresh water in the UK. (Loch Lomond is the biggest by surface area.) Ness' waters run to over 200 metres deep and are dark and peaty, so there are plenty of places for Nessie to hide. She hasn't shown herself to me yet.

Loch Ness

Another day trip involved a drive through part of the Cairngorms National Park to Balmoral.


Balmoral Castle is the summer holiday residence of the Royal Family and is only open to the public from April to June. It's privately owned by the Queen, not Crown land. I think Queen Victoria bought it originally. The grounds are vast and range from woodland to manicured rose gardens. The roses are managed so that they're in bloom when the Queen and co are there and not a moment before. I noticed lots of security cameras around the grounds. The ballroom is the only room open to the public and has a display of various royal paraphenalia - dinner services, some of the Queen's outfits, paintings and such like. She apparently likes Landseer quite a lot.

I also drove along the Lecht Road which goes across the top of the Cairngorms. It's a road that's frequently closed due to snow and I could see great patches of snow on nearby mountaintops. The views are spectacular though.


The Cairngorms take their name from Cairn Gorm, one of the peaks there, and translates as the Blue Hills - though they're known colloquially as the Red Hills, so go figure. The mountains here are quite low, rising to just over 800 metres and quite rounded. There are occasional patches of pine forest, particluarly in the Dee River valleys but, for the most part, the hills are relatively bare; just heather and gorse. There are no settlements or roads either: just the main highways which skirt the edges of the area. You'd have to be keen to walk them. The only inhabitants appear to be sheep.
The hillsides are covered in a patchwork of old and new heather, created by regular controlled burnings. This is to accommodate the grouse apparently, and, no doubt, the weirdos who like to shoot them. Still, it makes for an interesting landscape.

I also went in search of Boleskine House, once owned by Jimmy Page and, way back by Alistair Crowley.

Boleskine House

It's on the road that follows the eastern side of Loch Ness, just outside the town of Foyers. It's surrounded by trees so I couldn't get a good view unfortunately. Between the house and the Loch is a graveyard. Spooky!

The next stage of the Scottish adventure is Fort William, the second largest town in the Highlands (after Inverness). From there I can take the Jacobite steam train (aka the Hogwarts Express) to Mallaig and back, visit the Isle of Skye and view Ben Nevis.


Reflections of Scotland

It's not always cold, wet and windy in Scotland. There are occasional periods of sunshine - although it is always windy! I'm beginning to think that the only difference between summer and winter in Scotland is that in summer the trees have leaves.