NORTH BY NORTHWEST
Sunday-Wednesday, 8-11 October 2006
Sunday I listen to fifteen or so episodes of Mark Gillespie’s WhiskyCast on my
way to Glasgow this morning–I’d fallen far behind, and loaded unheard episodes into my iPod before leaving for Scotland.
They certainly helped to pass the time. Walk into the terminal at about 9:00, and Ron saunters in from arrivals at
about 9:20. We spend about an hour over coffee, catching up.
"Do you like goat cheese?" I ask him. I bought a four-pack of cheeses at Schiphol for mid-day nibbling. One of them is a chčvre, of which I'm not fond. Neither is Ron.
Off we go, over Erskine Bridge and up the A82 through Crianlarich to Fort William, where we take a break for a visit to The Whisky Shop. We grab a few minis and then go on our way, through Spean Bridge and onto the A87, down Glen Shiel. It’s as beautiful in its way as Glen Coe, with less traffic. We pass the Jac-O-Bite Restaurant and come soon enough to Eilean Donan Castle, on the shore of Loch Duich. The castle was destroyed in 1719 during the first Jacobite Rebellion, but restored in the early 20th century by John MacRae-Gilstrap. It’s a picturesque structure, reputedly the most photographed castle in Scotland, and I can believe it–one year I sent a dozen or so different postcards of it home. You can learn more about it here.
We roll into Plockton at about 3:45pm. We are staying with Richard and Teresa at their lovely B&B down at the town pier. Teresa greets us, and I ask her if they like goat cheese. She makes a face. Not only do they not like goat cheese, but apparently Richard has lately been making very rude jokes about it, and I am strongly discouraged from mentioning it in his presence. He appears presently, and, knowing that we are Red Sox fans, tries to tweak us about the Sox’ ill fortune this season. Obviously he has researched this especially for our arrival. He doesn’t realize that we have been far beyond tweaking for weeks.
Ron and I settle in, and meet in the lounge for a dram. The plan is to have one and then a nap before dinner, but one turns into another, and before long we realize that we have conducted a fairly thorough Bladnoch survey. We skip the nap and have dinner at the Plockton Hotel, which has Deuchars IPA, and then settle in to the Plockton Inn, which has London Pride and Abbot Ale, and a fair selection of malts. The Inn is usually reasonably lively, but it is very quiet tonight, which is a bit disappointing, as it is Ron’s birthday.
We are just about to pack it in when the door bursts open, and a vanload of international uni kids pours in–Aussie, Kiwi, South African, German, who knows what else. Just what we need! There is joking and laughter and billiards.
Ron does not get really drunk very often, but when he does, it’s very sudden. One moment he’s steady and speaking rationally, and the next, he’s slurring and stumbling. So it is just now. He stumbles off to the bar, and a few moments later I hear one of the lads saying, “The Yank’s buying a round for the house. It’s his birthday!” The kids immediately sing “Happy Birthday”, and Ron responds by pumping both fists in the air and shouting, “Down with Bush! Down with Bush!” Apparently he wants to convince them that he is not an obnoxious American, and oddly enough it seems to work.
Monday Despite being just a wee tad groggy, we get off in good time this morning for a day trip to Skye. Over the
bridge we go, through Broadford, left at Sligachan, and along Loch Harport. We skirt the Talisker distillery and cross
the peninsula to the Talisker farm, the last remnant of the Talisker Estate. It lies in a broad valley with cliffs on
either side, reminding me a bit of the Faroes. We park at the end of the road and take the short walk to the
gold-flecked black sand beach–another reminder of the Faroes–on Talisker Bay. We have the place to ourselves, although
oddly, we stumble over three pairs of shoes–Papa, Mama, and Baby–left neatly on the grass above the beach. A bit of a
Back across the peninsula, we visit the distillery. We are not interested in the tour today, but just a stop in the shop to see if there’s anything we really need to buy. There isn’t. The bottles of 20- and 25-year old are more than we want to pay today. I was hoping to see a ten-year-old cask strength to replace one finished a while back, but there is none.
We stop to look at the ruined broch of Dun Beag. It’s Ron’s first broch, but it won’t be his last. These circular towers are found all over Scotland, particularly in the north, and are generally 2,000 to 2,500 years old. Their purpose and function are not well understood. Many, like Dun Beag, are on hilltops. The engineering of their drystone construction is sufficiently sophisticated that some archeologists believe them to be the work of itinerant professionals.
We drive around toward Portree, the main town in Skye, stopping to photograph the Old Man of Storr. I’ve never really taken to Portree, but it’s worth a half an hour’s poke through the shops. There is a good music shop, and I find a couple of interesting cd’s.
We return to Plockton and have dinner and pints at the Plockton Inn before calling it a night relatively early.
Tuesday Normally I stay in Plockton three or four nights, and on one of the days I make the trek over Bealach na Ba, the
Pass of the Cattle, to Applecross for a late lunch at the Applecross Inn. The food is excellent–the seafood platter
will be the last meal you need for a few days–but it’s the trip over the pass itself that is the reason for going. It’s
the third-highest road in Scotland, and as it starts and ends at sea level, has the highest ascent of any road pass in the UK.
The eastern end is especially spectacular, with switchbacks ascending a cleft in the cliffs.
We are not staying another night in Plockton, so we make the Applecross trip on our way north. This will be the most scenic day of our stay in Scotland. We stop at the summit of the pass for incredible views across Raasay to Skye. I’ve seen a foot of snow up here in October, and in former times, the village of Applecross could be isolated for long periods during the winter.
We do not linger in Applecross; it’s too early for lunch, and we have a long way to go. We skirt the peninsula on the northern road, completed only in 1975, and up scenic Glen Torridon. (Unfortunately, my camera chooses this time to develop a shutter malfunction). Down along Loch Maree we go and through Gairloch, where we stop for coffee. Presently we arrive at Drumchork by Aultbea, overlooking Loch Ewe and the romantically named Isle of Ewe (say it out loud).
We stop here to visit the Drumchork Lodge, and specifically its little distillery, meant to replicate an illicit still from bygone times. As it happens, John Clotworthy, the man in charge, is not here–he is in Toronto for a whisky festival. A fellow working on his car in front of the tiny distillery building sheepishly lets us in to take pictures. “I’m not supposed to do this,” he says. (Please forgive him, Mr Clotworthy.) We also get a peek at the bar in the hotel. Yet another entry on the long list of places to stay sometime in the future.
Reluctantly, we depart and drive along Gruinard Bay, up Little Loch Broom, and down Loch Broom on our way to Ullapool. We arrive in midafternoon, early enough to do some business online at the library and browse some of the shops downtown before checking in to our B&B, two streets up from the waterfront.
We have dinner in the Seaforth Hotel, and further pints and drams in the Ferryboat Inn and the Caledonian Hotel. It’s a quiet night everywhere, and we decide to retire to the B&B, where we enjoy a wee spot of Bladnoch in front of the fire in the guest lounge.
Wednesday We leave Ullapool early. We must catch the ferry for Orkney later; it’s not all that long a drive, but we want
to be sure to have plenty of time. There is plenty more great scenery today, but the weather has turned on us.
Increasing cloud and gloom presage a band of wet weather sweeping across the British Isles. The road cuts inland for a
while, and dramatic mountains like Suilven stand between us and the coast.
Ardvreck Castle is a nearly formless ruin on the shore of Loch Assynt. It was built by the MacLeods of Assynt in the late 15th century. Apparently not a lot happened here.
We drive north to Durness, and then along the northern coast of Scotland. The mountains are set back a way now, and the scenery is more sweeping. We stop to have a look at Smoo Cave, but it is closed for repairs! It is not even possible to gain a vantage point from which to look in at the vast sea cave.
The beach named Trŕigh Allt Chŕilgeag, two miles east of the cave, is open for business. According to Nick Brown, the name means "the beach of the stream of bereavement", a melancholy name for a lovely place. I discovered it on my first trip to Scotland in 1998, and although I have found many other beaches at least as pretty, it remains a favorite spot. We linger a little while, picking over limpet shells, but too soon must be on our way.
We stop outside of Thurso to see the unexcavated remains of two chambered cairns on a hilltop overlooking the town and the Pentland Firth. The cairns are very large, or were–there isn’t much left of them to see, at least not above ground. The late afternoon sky is gloomy and threatening, and it’s very windy on the hilltop, so we don’t stay long.
We check into the tourist office in Thurso and ask if the Pentland Ferry is running. The wind is strong out of the south, and I know from experience that means trouble docking. If the trip were canceled, there would be a couple of alternatives that we could easily arrange while we are here in town. We are assured by telephone that the trip is on. We also call our lodgings in St Margarets Hope, where the ferry lands in Orkney, and are disappointed to find out that we will not be able to get dinner on arrival due to a funeral. I’d chosen this particular guest house because its restaurant was well rated. There is another hotel in the village, but we are told their kitchen will also be closed. Annoyed, we saunter over to Top Joe’s for a pint, and then make the half-hour drive to Gills Bay. We know on arrival that something is amiss–the ferry is not at the dock, and there are no cars waiting. In the office, we find that the trip is indeed canceled. We are the last party to be informed.
Plan B...I call NorthLink Ferries in Scrabster, back the other side of Thurso, and confirm that their later trip will indeed go. If it doesn’t, we will have to spend the night in Thurso, which won’t be the end of the world (it just kind of looks like it). I also call St Margarets Hope and cancel our room. The Pentland cancellation is sufficient excuse, and NorthLink lands at Stromness, at the other end of Orkney. We drive back to Scrabster in wind and rain and check in, and grab a bite in a local pub. I try repeatedly to call Doris at the Orca Hotel, but get no answer. I think likely she is booked up, but maybe could help us find something. As it is, we will arrive in Stromness at 9:00pm without a room. We can always sleep in the car.