Posted in England, Scotland

16th July – Pitlochry & Home Again

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Starting out on a lovely drive through the mountains we passed snow gates and snow poles edging the road. At Glenshee there were ski lifts in lines up the mountainside, and on what was a fairly sunny day it was hard to imagine it all covered in snow, very serene, quiet and cold I expect and not my idea of fun at all.

Arriving in Pitlochry we found it to be a really nice town, individual shops, hotels and pubs all catering for large numbers of tourists, there for walking, cycling, wildlife, fishing and later in the year, the shooting season. The river Hummel runs through the town and a hydro-electric dam creates a large still lake behind it with great reflections, and down one side of the dam is a ‘fish ladder’ enabling returning salmon to negotiate up river to their spawning ground.

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Pitlochry was full of flowers, scented roses, formal gardens, tubs at the station, and a wickerwork golfing lady surrounded by red begonias. I really liked the decorated tall black ‘fish tailed’ signpost for the National Cycle Network giving distances of towns on the route.

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Visiting a woodland walk called The Hermitage near Dunkeld, the pathway was lined with towering pine trees as we made our way to the waterfall gorge. It was thundering with white water after so much recent rain which made it quite spectacular, the smooth rock faces worn away by the action of the river. We enjoyed the first half of a 5 mile walk through forest, open pathways and rocky slopes, until the rain started while we were in open farmland with no shelter, it did ease eventually but not before we got quite wet.

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We stayed at Loch of Lowes managed by the RSPB and for which you need permission. We were attending a talk about beavers and their reintroduction which was fascinating. Learning that they were in the loch was so exciting and we stayed up until 10pm in the hide, then got there before 7am next day in the hope of seeing one, but we didn’t.

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What we could see and hear really easily was a family of ospreys with two fledged , near adult sized chicks. We watched a few fishing attempts by the young birds resulting in wet birds with no fish, then an adult showed them how it was done, returning with the fish to the nest. I only had my mobile phone and our telescope, so I put one against the other to take a few awful photos, but it makes a memory when looking back in years to come.

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We met up with a couple from Falkirk, last seen on South Uist where we had spent an evening chatting together. We had come to The Helix to see the Kelpies, horses heads standing 30 meters high made of steel construction clad in stainless steel, they were built in 2013 and made a wonderful feature next to the canal locks. Again it was a grey day but in a brief bit of sunshine, the horse sculptures glinted silver against the clouds. Walking around the parkland afterwards we found a wickerwork sculpture and the wildflowers reminded me of the beautiful Uist Islands.

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We enjoyed the opportunity to meet more friends for few hours on the outskirts of Edinburgh, before finally making our way to Yellowcraig Campsite near North Berwick for two days. My cousin and his wife visited us and showed us a lesser known nearly deserted beach where we walked, Bass Rock off shore in the background and the ruins of Tantallon Castle further along the beach looking picturesque on top of the cliffs.

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Leaving Scotland behind I drove to Lindisfarne in Northumberland to visit Holy Island, it has always seemed fascinating, making sure of the tide times we set off across the causeway to explore. The shell of Lindisfarne Priory was quite a site with the red stone walls worn into great shapes by wind and rain, and numerous smaller structures, it was best seen from a higher vantage point to appreciate the scale of the building. A smaller church had been built close by, we didn’t go in as a service was taking place, but, I did manage to sneak a photo of a great wooden statue on men carrying a coffin, weird I know, but I liked it.

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Walking half a mile over the island to the castle perched high on a rock, we could see rain clouds gathering and luckily got to shelter before it came crashing down. Inside the 16th century castle, much work was carried out in the early 1900s to renovate it, showing the reddish stone contrasting with the plaster walls and stone floors. With a large stone fireplace and range in the kitchen food was prepared for many visitors who stayed at the castle. A terrace looks out over the coastline and it must have been quite nerve wracking as the tide covered the causeway, especially on stormy occasions at the edge of the North Sea.

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Dashing over to the small walled garden designed by Gertrude Jekyll around 1912, it was a haven of flowers, full of colour and lots of insects, butterflies and lots of bees. So fortunate the sun was shining at that moment to really appreciate such a lovely space. We could see it was all change again out to sea, dark brooding clouds meant we could hardly see across the bay.

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Luck was on our side, after a very fast walk back, quickly buying a fresh crab sandwich and punnet of garden strawberries, we reached Bessie just as the heavens opened in torrential fashion. It was so loud and heavy as we ate lunch, then drove back onto the mainland, passing a young family of 5 on bicycles who had at least 3 miles to go before they could shelter under a tree, they must have been drenched to the skin.

From our campsite at Beadnell Bay we walked into the next village of Seahouses to catch the boat for a cruise around the Farne Islands. Seals were lazing around on the rocks with huge cliffs of guillimots, kittiwake and razorbills as we toured the seas around various smaller islands. Finally landing on Inner Farne to see the puffins we certainly weren’t disappointed, there were several thousand, their numbers swelled as near adult chicks were out of the burrows. I loved their comical colourful faces contrasting with the black and white suit of feathers and the wobbling gait as they pattered backwards and forwards on large orange feet. I saw only one bird with the classic beak full of sand eels and was so chuffed to get a photo of it.

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Also nesting on the island are lots of Arctic terns and a smaller number of sandwich terns, several with very small fluffy chicks, their nests hidden in the low growing vegetation alongside the walkways.

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For our trip to Bamburgh Castle we had a brilliant blue sky and warm sunshine, the castle was high on the coast overlooking a huge sandy beach. Inside there were lots of rooms with furniture, China, paintings, porcelain figurines and weaponry.

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With a slight detour to Craster for kippers, smoked salmon and herring marinated in Madeira, we also had a short walk through this lovely village and along the coast towards Dunstanburgh Castle. We didn’t go to the ruins as I had a long drive to Bedale in North Yorkshire, quite a small town but with significance to me; I was born in Bedales Cottage, however it was not in Yorkshire but in East Sussex. The town centre was very wide, with large cobbled areas to each side being used as parking, several interesting shops, an attractive church and after a good walk around we relaxed in the pretty back garden of The Three Coopers with drinks.

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Our journey back home took us to Harrogate and South Shropshire visiting family, and Kidderminster to see friends, as we we completed our marathon trip to Scotland. We travelled 3,195 miles, and stayed 57 nights in 28 locations. Touring all around Scotland as well as visiting the islands of Mull, Skye, South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist, Harris and Lewis travelling in Bessie, as well as trips out to the smaller islands of Handa and Inner Farne by tourist boats. We saw some great birds too, golden eagle, white tailed eagle, osprey, black throated diver, great northern diver and corncrake, our full count was 115 species. It was a great experience, the midges didn’t bother us, and we saw and did so much.

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Posted in Scotland

11th July – Grantown-on-Spey – Balmoral

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Leaving The Black Isle and it’s quiet charm behind, we headed over the Kessock Bridge via Inverness towards our next destination in the Cairngorms National Park. Grantown-on-Spey is on the northern edge of the park and is a pretty small town that attracts many visitors to the area. Our first outing was a woodland walk with a mixture of tall pines and deciduous trees, natural pools and wildflowers, the sunshine was short lived and the sky turned stormy so we didn’t linger.

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At Loch Garten for many years there have been breeding ospreys, but not in 2019! Trying not to be disappointed, we walked to the centre and watched red squirrels dashing around the trees, a greater spotted woodpecker working its way up the tall pine trees, a fleeting glance of a crested tit and then, perched high in a tree was a single osprey, success for us in seeing one adult bird. It was a long way off and we used the RSPB telescope to get a good look, such a majestic and handsome bird.

 

On the walk back I noticed some fungi, a nice traditional shaped, reddish toadstool and some really weird ones called Devil’s Tooth Fungus that looked like bleeding marshmallows! There were moths flitting around the trees and disappearing before  could see what they were. Eventually I watched one land on a tree trunk, and then it vanished. After a careful search I saw it, brilliantly camoflauged, mimicking the colours of the tree trunk to perfection. I think it was a Striped Twin-spot Carpet having looked it up; birds are so much easier!  Having seen leaves turning colours, hawthorn berries starting to colour up and bright red rowan berries, it seemed like Scotland has skipped Summer and is heading straight for Autumn.

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Further along our walk passed by a loch with mallard, tufted duck and a pair of swans, we heard a great spotted woodpecker calling and eventually saw it high in the trees. The trees lined the loch right to the edge in places, the waters were a silver grey colour creating the perfect surface for a great reflection. Pine trees looked like their trunks had been covered in frost, on closer inspection it turned out to be a type of lichen with grey intricate leaf swirls.

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Doubling back on our journey we headed for the infamous Loch Ness, it would have been a shame to miss it out having come so close, so we booked a boat trip along a section at the top. The sky was heavy and grey, rain threatened at any moment and the wind was getting stronger. The trip started by passing Bona lighthouse built by Thomas Telford, once the smallest manned, inland lighthouse in the UK, it helped shipping negotiate the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness for nearly 200 years.

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Passing from the canal into the loch itself the steely grey surface reflected the trees lining the edges, and in one tall tree we were shown an osprey on its nest. Eventually getting to Urqhart Castle ruins once the site of many battles, it later became a place where Victorian aristocrats visited following royalty to the area. The boat returned from here and another box was ticked, so to speak. If the weather had been kinder, we would probably have visited the castle but we can leave that for another time.

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On our drive south through the Cairngorms, the wide open moorlands with rolling hills in a tapestry colours was very easy going on the eye, dotted with sheep and lambs and it made a relaxing drive The greens and browns of the heather looked like a patchwork over the hillside, areas having been control burned during the winter time to regenerate the plant and promote new growth. This provides food for grouse and sheep, ultimately generating income from what can be a harsh landscape. It opens the ground out providing different habitats for birds and insects, bees making pure heather honey providing another source of income. The heather was a beautiful sight, it’s vivid colour in swathes across the hillside, so many tiny flowers all together forming a carpet of pinky-purple.

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Pausing in the pretty Victorian town of Ballater for a couple of hours we noticed many of the shops had Royal Plaques stating their patronage of the premises over the years. There were many nice buildings in the town, including an old station converted to an information centre and an attractive church in the town’s green and floral centre.

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Next stop Balmoral Castle which I had been looking forward to since we planned the trip months ago. I wasn’t disappointed, it certainly is a castle fit for a Queen with an ornate and turreted exterior and large clock tower. We visited the Ballroom which was the only one open to visitors, lined with stags heads, large paintings and displays of artefacts, but no photography was allowed. Moving into the garden, Royaleverything was neat and orderly. Colourful rose beds close to the castle, a few statues with large manicured lawns. We were so lucky the day was warm and sunny which made it all look fantastic, the flowers smelled beautiful, especially the sweet peas and roses.

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An attractive large conservatory is full of pot plants for displays in the castle and a long greenhouse close by is full of colour and keeps a succession of plants ready for use. The vegetable garden is all organic and the growing season is timed for harvest of fruit and vegetables in August when the Royal family arrive.

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Walking along the Riverside walk, the River Dee sparkled in the sun as we passed by on our way to admire the Queen’s Fell ponies and several mares with foals at foot, quite a picturesque scene. We really enjoyed our visit and on our way out red squirrels were running over a shed roof and squabbling over the peanut feeder.

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At Royal Lochnagar we had our first experience of a whiskey distillery, it is one of the smallest in Scotland and is situated very close to Balmoral Castle. Our guide was excellent informing us all about making the golden liquid; the tour taking place on a day of action so we were able to see and smell some of the processes from raw barley right through to the enormous barrels in storage. To my surprise, I really liked the taste and it wasn’t the ‘fire water’ as I thought it would be.

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Posted in Scotland

4th July – North Coast to Rosemarkie

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The passing scenery of rugged mountains and wide shallow valleys made driving a real pleasure, bimbling along at 25 – 30 mph, hardly a car in sight, rocks interspersed with sheep and heather. The soft greens low down in the valley changes to darker greens and browns higher up the sides with dark shadows racing across the hillside as clouds are blown overhead.

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The vast empty spaces with no houses or barns, only an occasional bothy, and abandoned stone crofts which we have seen so many of during our travels. The Highland clearances we were learning, had not only destroyed people’s lives and livelihoods, but also destroyed the look and nature of the land. At Strathnaver Museum near Bettyhill, one quotation spelled it out;  ‘In 1755, 51% of Scotland’s population lived in the Highlands, in 2013 only 4% lived there’. There was lots of information about the Clearances with testimonials from people translated from the original Gaelic, also lots of articles on display. I particularly liked the old post-tin boat from St Kilda which presumably could takes weeks if not months to reach another shore, gives a new insight into the post being late!

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As the weather was very changeable and still very windy, we headed straight to Dunnett Bay skipping out a previously planned stop.

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There was a very long sandy beach spreading out below the campsite, we had a quick walk but it wasn’t very pleasant so we retreated inside. Rain and high winds were soon battering us and it continued all night, which I was listening to, awake until after 3am. Feeling a little jaded next day, it was decided we needed a ‘pick-me-up’ and booked lunch out followed by a tasting at Dunnett Bay Distillery making Rock Rose Gin. What a gem that turned out to be. Welcomed with a generous gin and tonic we listened to an introduction to the business set up by a young couple only 5 years ago, selling widely across Scotland, supplied at some Sainsbury stores in UK and now exporting to USA. Of course we came away with a bottle; one called Old Tom Gin which has tones of pink grapefruit, it is going to be savoured.

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Visiting the RSPB site on Dunnet Head was an extremely brief affair, time to take a photo the lighthouse and notice a few gulls before being blown off the top. It is the furthest northerly point on the Scottish mainland.

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We enjoyed a much longer visit to the Castle of Mey, one of the Queen Mother’s favourite places to spend time relaxing with her family. We were welcomed by a lovely lady called Nancy, whose father managed the farm that the Queen Mother bought locally. On his death, Nancy’s husband took the role and when he died, her two sons now jointly manage the farm. Such a personal tale, this was how she became involved with the Queen Mother and now undertakes her role in welcoming visitors. The castle was beautifully set out with personal items and photographs in all the rooms open to the public, guides told the story of each significant room with many nice personal facts and some memories. I had a nice feeling walking about what really was a regal home, imagining Royalty living there, indeed Prince Charles was due to arrive in two weeks.

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Keeping up the theme of the weather, we arrived at John O’Groats with more wind and rain, asked someone to take our photo at the famous signpost and scuttled into a cafe for a large mug of tea to warm up. Ticked that box.

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We moved rapidly onto Duncansby Head for a wild walk across the clifftops to see the famous Duncansby Stacks. These were very impressive, the tallest of which is nearly 197 feet high and 656 feet from the shore. The stacks are home to guillimot, razorbill, fulmar, kittiwake and I spotted a few puffins too.

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Back into the warmth of Bessie, our journey south was just beginning and almost immediately we noticed a change in the landscape. The wild mountain sides we replaced with more agricultural land, fields divided by stone walls with foxgloves in deep pinks and white ones too on the road verges.  There were fields of cattle of varying beef breeds and colours in black, golden, greys and brown and white,  mostly with calves at foot and usually a huge bull to look after his ladies. Also different was the fact that all the sheep had been shorn and recently too, I could still see the lines of the clippers on their sides, I hope they can grow enough wool to keep them warm by winter time, it must be bleak in a north easterly wind.

At Wick we enjoyed a very sheltered night sheltered by trees and watched baby rabbits running around. As luck would have it, this one night coincided with the celebration for the centenary of Wick’s Pipe Band, when five bands marched over the old bridge and into the main square. In addition to Wick’s band, there was one from Thurso, another representing the police, and one each from Switzerland and Germany, all giving excellent displays, dressed in their different tartans and marching while playing their bagpipes.

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A small group of young girls made a colourful appearance as they performed some traditional Scottish dances.

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On our way south down the coast we found Laidhay Croft Museum and after a quick look around we had lunch at the cafe with homemade soup and tray bakes. We also stopped off at Badbae to see an abandoned settlement where the remnants of a dozen stone cottages could be seen scattered along the clifftops, now grown over by grass and beautiful foxgloves. This was where some families had been moved to, away from their farms in the fertile interior, to start again and try to exist on the coast where they tried to learn about boats and fishing. From over 60 people it took around 50 years for the last remaining 16 people to abandon these houses.

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Heading for Brora we stayed at Rosemarkie, a lovely campsite next to the sea with a golf course next door. Beautifully laid out with flowers and space, it was most relaxing. Finally we had a sunny day forecast, so we headed out next day to Dunrobin Castle, the most picturesque and turreted we have visited. A long sweeping and wood driveway lead to the entrance, complete with kilted piper, and inside the large hallway a log fire burned in the grate. A sweeping staircase lead to a galleried landing, numerous deer heads were mounted on the walls along with portraits and tapestries.

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An elaborate wood panelled dining room had a table set for 10 people with china and silverware. A set of 25 chairs had been hand embroidered by E Sutherland, each one with a different Coat of Arms and dated, it must have taken years!

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My favourite room was a long and very light drawing room, overlooking the gardens and ultimately the sea beyond. Beautifully furnished with lots of seating, another 25 chairs all with embroidered birds in pale colours complimenting the tapestries, paintings and tables.

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There was a library with 10,000 books, so we were informed, lined up on floor to ceiling shelving, coupled with the wood panelling it seemed quite dark. The Green Bedroom was so luxurious with fancy panels all decorated in gold, a large fireplace with enough space for a sofa, chaise-longue, several chairs. One room was displaying an old Singer sewing machine and many elaborate costumes, high fashion at the time.

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A children’s bedroom with hand painted furniture bedrooms, a nursery and large children’s play room which I found fascinating. Such a wealth of elaborate toys, a huge dolls house, sailing yacht, model railway, dolls pram, numerous books, puzzles, with dolls and teddies at a tea-party.

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Moving outside to the garden, a raised balcony gave panoramic views of the whole layout of the gardens with the sea beyond.

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A graceful staircase of stone steps lead down to the long borders, full of colour and texture.

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Split into three sections, the centre one had recently been mown and replanted with new trees which would look great in a few years time. To either side were elaborate gardens with box hedging creating various shapes all filled with flowers and shrubs. My favourite were the tall wooden pyramids with white roses climbing up them, also tall purple alliums added a vibrant splash of colour with multi coloured sweet-williams close by.

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Reflections of the castle in circular ponds added another dimension to this beautiful relaxing garden. I think this castle and garden has to be my favourite so far, looking like a fairy tale with its turrets and towers, the panoramic views, sheltered corners and a magical warm sunny day to enjoy our visit.

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On the edge of the Moray Firth we had a rare afternoon in shorts so we walked the beach and relaxed by the sea. At Chanonry Point we watched dolphins and harbour seals, great through our binoculars but not close enough to photograph on this occasion, however we understand that they come very close at times. There were some lovely wild flowers between the golf course and the beach as we set off to walk into Fortrose about 30 minutes away. We found a crumbling 13th century cathedral which had once been quite large, the nave has long gone but there is still quite a lot remaining and it was still interesting look at.

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We found a crumbling 13th century cathedral which had once been quite large, the nave has long gone but there is still quite a lot remaining and it was still interesting look at.

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Before returning, we visited The Anderson, an old inn that we had been told was good for real ale. It was an Aladdin’s cave apparently having over 200 single malt whiskeys, and while they used to have beers from all over the UK, now they showcase the local Cromarty Ales. The ceiling and wall being the bar had so many different beer mats from brewers all over the UK, including beers from Salisbury, our own local brewers Hop Back and Downton. We tried a couple of the Cromarty beers and got back to Bessie before the rain started again. It never seems so bad when you can watch the weather outside while you are warm and dry inside.

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Posted in Scotland

27th June – Ullapool to Durness

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Having got off one boat the day before, we got straight back on a smaller one the next day with fabulous weather for our planned trip around the Summer Isles off the coast near Ullapool. We soon saw common or harbour seals resting on the rocks and got quite good views of their different colours and cute faces. The sun was shining and a breeze was encouraging the gulls to do aerial acrobatics as the whizzed along the cliffs on the updrafts.

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A white tailed eagle was spotted perched in a tree on the shore, it was incredible hard to pick it out and even harder to get a photograph of it, bad as it is, but at least we were lucky enough to see one.

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There are approximately 25 islands and rocks in the archipelago, very few are inhabited with extremely low numbers of people, mostly they are home to birds and seals. Salmon farms lie alongside some of the islands making the most of the cold clear seas to bring much needed income to the area. Some of the salmon is smoked and it really is delicious. The largest island is Tanera Mòr where Cathedral Cave can be found, accessed by boat, it had a huge ‘narrow window’ letting light in, it was surprisingly colourful and noisy with the sea crashing on the sides.

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After such a lovely day we had a brilliant sunset to round the day off nicely.

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Driving away from the coast and into the hills, we stopped at Knockan Crag near Inchnadamph, it is part of the North West Highland Geopark Rock Trail. There was an unmanned visitor centre with lots of information boards and displays about how the continents collided millions of years ago. This caused The Moine Thrust where older rock now lies on top of younger rocks and was studied by Peach & Horne in the late 19th century, there are statues to the two men at the centre.

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At the beginning of the trail there is a cleverly built section showing the various rock, carved with details of type and age clearly showing the older rocks on top. As you walk uphill, inscriptions on rocks beside the path indicate that Scotland started off in the southern hemisphere, following its path north when it was joined onto North America 500 million years ago. Eventually the Atlantic was formed between the continents which were torn apart as the tectonic plates moved to new positions with the volcanic activity deep in the earth. I’ve always found this subject fascinating. On the side of the hill sits a sculpture, a large sphere made of pieces of rock almost as tall as I am, very clever and fitted well within the landscape.

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As we climbed down again, the mountains towered in the distance, a large loch reflected the grey sky and clusters of flowers provided an injection of colour among the rocks. Looking back where we had been, I noticed a huge red stag with a fine set of antlers in velvet, watching him through the binoculars I found a second younger stag with not such elaborate headgear and it rounded of our visit to perfection.

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Another more strenuous walk very close to Inchnadamph took us over rocky paths for an hour, up hill and beside a pretty stream, I should really say a ‘burn’ as we are in Scotland! We were heading for The Bone Caves on a steep sided valley below a near vertical sided cliff, where remains of linx, wolves, reindeer and polar bears had been found, left behind after the ice age. I couldn’t go up to the caves because of my fear of heights but Chris did and saw four large caves, all totally empty, but a good view from the high vantage point.

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Safely down and on the beach by the Clachtoll campsite, I enjoyed wondering around taking photos in the evening. There was a beautiful secluded cove with an arc of sand being enjoyed by kids and dogs, a BBQ smelled great as we walked by and a couple set off from the beach in an inflatable canoe. Jelly fish with purple circles were lying on the beach with others floating lifeless in the water, and small rockpools had been left behind in the rock crevices. There was a chill wind blowing so we didn’t stay long but it was a treat to have it so close by.

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However, there was a complete change of weather next day with crashing waves, leaden sky and a blustery wind as we walked around a headland to escape the confines of Bessie’s warm and comfortable interior, couldn’t wait to get back inside!

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At Scourie on the north west coast of Southerland, our boat ride out to Handa Island started from Tarbet, a chilly 12°C and still windy. It is a nature reserve of just over a square mile and 400 feet high, wild terrain of grasses, bogs and wildflowers, plus thousands of birds. Near the start we saw eider ducks and several gull species as we walked uphill and away from the beach. A six mile walk around the island on very good pathways of boardwalk and rocks soon gave us two new birds, Arctic and great skuas. We had been advised to walk with a hand above our heads as the great skies would dive bomb us as they were still nesting.

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There are apparently 200,000 guillemots, and significant numbers of razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars plus around 200 puffins that nest on the island each year. The sheer cliffs were lined with birds, like a block of flats with tightly packed neighbours in clusters of the same species. The smell was a little heady at times!

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There were many low growing wildflowers; yellow bog asphodel, pink heath orchids, pink and purple heathers, purple thyme, yellow tormentil, it was full of colour along with seed heads on the grasses waving in the wind. The scenery was beautiful and the sky had finally turned blue with fluffy white clouds making the sea also look so blue, we really had a good very day. We watched eider ducks with strings of ducklings bobbing as we waited for the boat back.

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Finally reaching the north coast at Durness the campsite overlooked Santo Bay, perched on a ridge looking down onto an almost deserted as high winds battered the Scottish coast. A short walk was tried but apart from seeing jelly fish, a puffin and a gull, all dead, lots of seaweed and rain clouds brewing, it was not to pleasant, so we retreated to warm up in Bessie.

Chris braved another walk without me and he found a small church and graveyard at Balnakeil where John Lennon’s aunty, Elizabeth Parkes, is buried. Apparently he spent several holidays and visited the area regularly until 1969. In warmth and comfort I managed to complete most of jigsaw while he was away and together we finished it soon after he returned.

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After two really rough nights of wind and rain I was looking forward to moving on. First though, we had a look at Smoo Caves that were close by and after a steep, wet climb down numerous steps, we crossed a small bridge over a small river and escaped the rain as we entered the cave. The sea eroded away at the cave in years gone by, but these days it rarely reaches it, the entrance is the largest in Britain at 130 feet wide and nearly 50 feet high. Uniquely an adjoining cave was created by a freshwater stream called Allt Smoo. The smaller cave was created as the water dissolved the rocks and a great waterfall drops 66 feet before running into the next cave which was created by the sea.

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Posted in Scotland

25th June – Harris and Lewis

 

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During the short zigzag route taken by the small ferry, between the red and green buoys clearly marking a safe passage, we saw grey seals basking on rocks, gannets diving for fish, eider ducks, a few red breasted mergansers and a good number of black guillemots with white wings making them easy to identify. Arriving at Leverburgh on South Harris and travelling on the western side we noticed at once the stark lack of trees and rocky appearance of the land. We hugged the coast road on its periphery as sandy bays appeared on the far side of turquoise sea patches of different blues.

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Turning down yet another single track road we kept stopping to admire more wonderful beaches on our way to one that we had been recommended to visit at Luskentyre. A large arc of pristine white sand, tiny waves and overlooked land on the far side. It was very windy and as my damaged ankle was still causing difficulty walking, we retreated to the sand dunes for a while as hardy souls took their dogs out. Two young men decided to swim, the air temperature was only about 16°,  I wonder what the sea would have been? Very cold!

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Reaching Tarbert and parking up near the harbour, a visit to the Harris Tweed shop was on my radar and I wasn’t disappointed coming away with a very nice bag. The distillery didn’t have a tour available until late so we abandoned that idea and drove north out of Harris and into Lewis with some beautiful mountainous countryside with numerous lochs.

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At Callanish we visited an excellent set of  Neolithic standing stones in the shape of a cross having a circle in the middle with a monolith at the centre. They were tall and imposing, in very good condition, originally there had been a tomb chamber which has now long gone. There must have been 30 people walking around the stones and one annoying drone circling and whining above, several people took objection to the intrusion and told the young man in no uncertain terms it was unacceptable; hurray for common sense! I managed to hide most of the people in my photo by moving my position until nearly all of them were hidden by stones.

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At Geàrrannan we visited the famous ‘Blackhouse Village’, where the houses originally housed a family and their animals. They were built on a slope with the animals at the downhill end of the low, single storey building so that the animal effluent and rain water would run away. The roof was timber, overlaid with heather and topped by loose straw, held in place by a mesh weighted with stones. The low door and small windows made it dark but kept it warmer in winter and cooler in summer. There were only two rooms heated by an open peat fire, plus the area for the animals and workshop area.

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Two single beds behind the curtains in a separate room and double bed in living area

Peat cutting has been present on all the islands we have visited and is still very much in use. The top 12 inches or so are cut away and preserved upside down in a naturally occurring water trench. Then a turf cutting blade is used to take two layers of turf off the section being harvested, each piece being placed on the side to dry. They are then turned and stacked, and restacked several times to allow air between in the drying process, this takes a number of weeks depending on the weather. The finished peat blocks are then loaded into containers and heaved into a trailer, and eventually a peat stack would be built near the homestead. The turfs that were placed in the water are then put back on the bottom of the trough to re-grow. All very labour intensive, handling each turf numerous times before it ever gets to a fireplace, but neighbours and friends help each other so it is a community effort for each family.

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Top left: small scale shallow cutting   Top right: larger quantities being cut

A scenic drive up to the Port of Ness, the most northerly point of Lewis, lead us to find out the nature reserve was elusive, and when finally found it was too far for my ankle, undeterred we retraced our route and carried on to Stornoway. Before the ferry next day, we visited Lews Castle, originally built as a country house in 1844, it was used by the forces in WWII and student accommodation in the 1950s, before being recently renovated into a cultural centre, museum and luxury holiday apartments.

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The large entrance door lead to a long hall way with gold coloured supports displaying the star covered ceiling, a new ballroom/function room had three chandeliers hanging from its delicate plasterwork ceiling and the dining room had hand painted floral designs on either side of its fireplace. An elegant stair lead upstairs to the private accommodation.

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The museum was really interesting and well laid out having just enough information without overload. We walked in the surrounding grounds along meandering pathways with good views of the castle and over to the ferry port where we headed next on our way to Ullapool.

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Posted in Scotland

20th June – South and North Uist

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After driving off the ferry at on South Usit, we travelled south along a spine of roads admiring the beauty of the islands, until reaching Kilbride Campsite near Ludag on the southern tip of South Uist. When we were within 5 miles of our new campsite I had to pull over on the single track road to let another car past when suddenly I saw a golden eagle flying low, straight towards us. With the binoculars I could see its hooked beak, tawny mane of feathers and huge feet. It landed in the rough grass and we were so excited, then it spread its huge wings and took off with some unfortunate food item hanging from its talons. I don’t have a problem with that, it is the circle of life, but then as the eagle powered away and finally dropped down to the grass again, it started being mobbed by a beautiful grey male hen harrier. A fabulous aerial display of flying skills then ensued which we watched for several minutes. We then realised that the eagle’s meal was possibly the harrier’s chick, just a shame it was another rare bird the eagle caught and not a more plentiful variety.
Looking out over a rose hedge with fragrant magenta coloured flowers, the field was covered in butterflies and daisies with half a dozen oystercatchers strutting around in their black and white waiter’s outfits. We heard a funny tale; some American tourists had asked, ‘what are the magpies doing eating carrots’, we burst out laughing and have called the oystercatchers ‘carrot suckers’ ever since! (Apologies to Claudia, Andrea and Kevin, sure you are not included in this hilarity). Nearby to the campsite was a small white sand beach with a pathway that we explored, our very own bit of paradise.

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Using Bessie to go further afield, we drove back inland and found road leading to a RSPB recognised area, complete with notice boards and way-markers. Setting off along the deserted single track road we turned off across the moors following the blue marked trail around Loch Druidbeag. Spotting the next marker was challenging and the binoculars came in handy more than once. The terrain was rough and exceedingly damp in places, not surprising when we were walking on sphagnam moss, heather and tussocks of grass, the ground was like walking on a mattress, really spongy as well as squelshy. The scenery was wonderful as we climbed the hills with tremendous views for miles, sadly no photo could do it justice so it’s consigned to memory, such as it is!

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On our way again and at the top of South Uist we stopped to see a granite statue of Our Lady of the Isles, which a local priest raised funds to have built in 1957. Concern had been raised by local residents when the Military wanted to have firing and missile ranges on Uist which would have destroyed their way of life and culture. With the local people and the priest being against the military’s plans, the statue effectively stopped it, life continues peacefully and wildlife thrives.

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Taking an even more rural route on the western side of the island Benbecula, (between south and north Uist), we drove past some lochs to see birds, passing fields full of wildflowers when we heard the unmistakable sound of a corncrake, a very elusive and rare bird found in the far north where habitat and lack of disturbance give it a stronghold. Trying to see it was well nigh impossible, but Chris caught sight of its head and neck, I failed completely but I did record its ‘song’. Sounds a bit like pulling your thumb nail over the teeth of a small plastic comb – not really a song!
The campsite at Balranald on North Uist, is next to the RSPB site and is on the most northern edge, a projection into the Atlantic with only St Kilda between here and the tip of Greenland. Literally as soon as we found our pitch, Chris heard another corncrake, in fact we heard several over our 3 days at this site, but not once did we see one! On our first day the weather was amazing, blue skies and a balmy 16°, not quite summer but definitely not cold. We enjoyed a 5 mile walk around the complete headland and coast that forms a promontory. The land is described as a Machair (pronounced makair) where nutritionally poor soil grows an abundance of wildflowers. There were carpets of them with 10-12 varieties regularly seen, drifts of pink sea thrift and white sea campion, wet areas full of bog cotton, and soft white sandy bays with contrasting black rock. Absolutely idyllic on a lovely warm and sunny day in mid June.

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To top it all off, there was the most amazing sunset, lots of people taking photos and it even made the local news bulletin as the first one in a while, we were so lucky to see it.

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The next day was grey and blustery but it didn’t stop us going out, we drove around North Uist looking for short eared owls and hen harriers, successfully and with good views of both. After badly twisting my stupid ankle, yet again, hardly able to walk, but able to drive in comfort, we made made our way to the ferry for our trip to the Isles of Harris & Lewis.

Posted in Scotland

15th June – Isles of Mull and Skye

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Having been on the Scottish mainland looking over to the Isle of Mull, finally it was time to catch the ferry for the 45 minute crossing. As we came into port I see could see our next campsite from the ferry deck, it took literally 3 minutes to drive there. Our pitch looked directly over the beach to the sea in the Sound of Mull now looking back at the mainland, with regular ferries to keep us amused along with the birds along the shore.

Not wanting to waste a moment, after a hasty lunch we took Bessie back out down the southerly side of Mull, along the single track road dotted with passing places. The island is well wooded with rhododendrons among the trees giving vibrant splashes of colour in an otherwise green landscape.

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Being me, I simply had to see where the small side roads went too, and I drove some very interesting stretches between trees and ditches, scarcely populated by a house or two and after several miles deciding to retrace our route before may be getting stuck. Winding along the loch sides we passed huge towering rocks with massive boulders half way down the slopes, the scale of the rocks was amazing.

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The scenery was beautiful, with sheep and lambs everywhere, a small number of cattle and an occasional horse, we even found a peacock on a gate post. Best of all we found some red deer with their antlers in velvet, the big stag ran away and hopped over the fence but a younger one stayed near enough to get a photo of it.

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The roads on Mull were unbelievably rough and bumpy making driving an exercise in pothole dodging, driving in a zigzag and meandering way to avoid the worst of it. We often had the road to ourselves meaning I could just stop and get out to take photos, later on some lovely reflections of the hills in still water and gushing waterfall. Slowly, slowly became the norm giving me time to enjoy looking out to sea, watching the gulls and herons while looking for eagles and otters.

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We enjoyed a morning with the RSPB Mull eagle watch and with a small group we were lucky, to see (through telescopes), a female on the nest feeding it’s 5 week old chick. Once we could locate the nest it was just possible to see with it binoculars and we all hoped to see a change over of the parent birds but sadly it didn’t happen. I saw an extremely brief glimpse of one bird in flight as it disappeared into the tall pine tree.

A bus trip to the north east of the island was most welcome as a rest from driving, the day was grey and very wet. We visited Tobermoray, the capital of Mull, a colourful town situated around its harbour with a striking granite clock tower built in 1905 and a pretty stone church. The sun finally came out and lit up the bright painted houses and boats making lovely reflections in the water.

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A sunny evening awaited us on our return and we sat sipping drinks on the inside as the long, light evening unfolded into a fabulous sunset, a great finale to our time o  Mull.

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A long drive took us over the Skye Bridge onto the second island of our trip. Immediately looking completely different to Mull, the scenery seemed to be nearly devoid of trees, the roads structures were really good and the wide open countryside appeared sparsely populated. Vast open spaces of hillside, bracken and sheep on gently sloping valleys flashed by our windows as we continued our journey up to north Skye to our campsite at Edinbane. Finally settled in another enviable location, looking out over Loch Greshornish, the vigorous, swirling wind and leaden skies with low light, made dramatic viewing as we sipped a gin and tonic at the end of a long day.

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The next day dawned with torrential rain, black clouds and we briefly thought of spending our one and only day on Skye holed up in Bessie. No, not for us, so kitted up in all our waterproofs with hats and team spirit, a gap in the clouds had us walking off to catch a bus to view Dunvegan Castle and Gardens. Simply amazing, the sun came out and blue sky magically appeared so we decided to see the castle from down by the loch and then admire the gardens. The views of the castle from the side of the loch were beautiful as the sun picked out all the colours of the rocks, golden seaweed as the tide was out with oaks and woodland surrounding it from the back.

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Starting off on a woodland walk, then the water garden, the round garden, a walled garden and vegetable section, a greenhouse, clematis pergola, there was so much to see and enjoy.

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Moving towards the castle with its high walls, turrets and crenellations, we entered into a hallway with a wide staircase to the upper rooms. Within the rooms there was a lot of elegant furniture beautifully displayed, fine chandeliers, a well stocked library of ancient books, walls full of large portraits, and a dungeon where prisoners had starved to death while smelling food from the kitchens, so the information sheets told us.

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On our walk back to catch the bus we, passed this family of bears waiting to get their Isle of Skye T-shirts. It had turned out to be an amazing day that we could so easily have missed out on if we had given in to the bad weather.

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On the drive final day on Skye, we drove the east coast around via Portree to see a little more of the island, the rugged mountains with the famous The Old Man of Storr a pinnacle of rock standing on the edge of the Totternish Range  and further along, the Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls with a drop of 180 feet which was spectacular with crystal clear sea below. Small white houses, many in the low bungalow style croft house made picture postcard landscapes as we travelled around to Uig to catch our next ferry.

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Posted in Scotland

9th June – Ledaig near Oban

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The journey from Inverary along Loch Awe and across the Pass of Brander towards Oban, was a beautiful drive with ever changing scenery, lochs and hills. Our campsite at Ledaig overlooked the sea towards Oban’s tiny airport and a marina at Dunbeg, where we were meeting up with many friends in the Bessacarr Owners Holiday Rally for 6 days. After the drive it was so nice to be welcomed with a beer and a hug while we settled in, our pitch on a very gentle gradient giving great view across the bay. We all do as much or as little as we want together as a group and generally everyone goes their separate ways during the daytime, with a few get-togethers spaced over the week.

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On a beautiful sunny day we headed south to Arduaine Gardens around 20 miles south of Oban. Situated on the coast it’s 20 acres have been developed since 1898 with many varieties of rhododendrons and azaleas, shrubs, bamboo, ferns and garden favourites all sheltered by high canopy of trees.

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For lunch we drove to Easdale in anticipation of oysters by the sea. What a picturesque village and coastal headland it turned out to be with small tidal inlets, pink sea thrift tucked in among the rocks, and pretty low white houses nestled under the tall surrounding rocks. The small traditional pub sadly only had 3 oysters left so we had one and a half each! Chris had Cullen Skink, a type of seafood chowder, and I chose 4 langoustines with salad, but they only had 3 left! So we shared some chips to fill up and made fellow diners jealous because we got the last ones, lots of laughs and banter with strangers and fellow sightseers, its what its all about.

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On the drive back we found a much photographed Clachan Bridge, a single humped back bridge over Clachan Sound, so we stopped to do just that, again it was very picturesque and relaxing by the river. Also known as the Bridge over the Atlantic, it got this name due to the fact that Clachan Sound is connected at both ends to the Atlantic.

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For something completely different we went to the Nevis Range Mountain Resort for a Gondola ride up into the mountains. The day was grey and dull but we were dressed for the occasion and took the very smooth ride up the hillside ready for a couple of short walks to view points. The views were tremendous, way down to Fort William, some distant lakes and across to peaks and mountains. We caught a glimpse of Ben Nevis, with snow still visible, before it was engulfed in low cloud and drizzle. We sheltered by rocks whilst waiting for a break in the weather, sun appeared briefly down in the valleys but not where we were, undeterred, we did the next walk to a different view point before returning on the gondola for our ride down. It had been 1° Celsius up at the top and was a balmy 10° back at the bottom, and this is June!

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Oban itself had a pretty town centre with individual shops, eateries and bars situated around the harbour from where the fishing boats and ferries went in and out. We had a good fish and chip lunch and promised ourselves a proper seafood platter on our return.

Taking a walk from the campsite along off road paths created by the charity Sustrans from disused railway lines, we were able to go along through wooded cuttings, alongside small fields and came out on a beach. We saw a variety of birds but the most exciting was a golden eagle being mobbed by crows, several times it flipped on it’s back, talons extended to ward them off, and flapped off into the distance.

 

Driving a long 90+ mile circuit heading north for Glencoe, we stopped for a look at the visitor centre and a short walk in the area of replanted native woodlands, a few remaining bluebells, beautiful orchids and foxgloves.

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Then we headed east through mountains and high moorland with wonderful sites of craggy peaks, slashed by torrents of waterfalls, dotted with sheep and tourists. The sun made appearances between the sudden rain storms, showing vibrant colours over beautiful vistas and vast empty spaces on the higher plateaus, and lower down there were gentle, tranquil spots down by the rivers where dragonflies and bees buzzed over the wildflowers and yellow iris.

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During our holiday with the Bessacarr Group, and on separate occasions, we enjoyed a sociable Pimms afternoon get together, an early wine and cheese evening, and lastly a meal at a the Lochnell Arms overlooking the fast flowing Loch Etive as it exited into sea. It was great to spend time catching up with friends and hearing the tales of their days out, swapping experiences and giving each other details about great places to visit. It was this Bessacarr Holiday Trip that prompted us to put into action our often talked about visit to Scotland. Originally it was going to be a few weeks, but morphed into a much longer trip because there is so much to see and do, and not least, it is so far to travel from the south of England.

Posted in Scotland

1st June – Trip to Scotland

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After months of planning using maps and a highlighter pen, magazine articles and the internet, campsite and ferries were booked and we could finally set off for an 8 week trip to Scotland including some of the Western Isles. The route we decided on would take in a stop off to see family in Shropshire, followed by a long drive to Silverdale close to the RSPB site at Leighton Moss. The weather had been dull and wet the previous day, but we were lucky it changed to a windy but sunny day for our walk around this wetland reserve notching up 44 species. The most spectacular birds were a pair of marsh harriers floating over the reed beds, also great crested grebes with their black and white striped chicks and a kingfisher with its striking iridescent turquoise plumage. The air was full of bird song especially willow warbler and blackcap, yellow iris glowed in the sun with many damselflies, butterflies and bees making up the sound of summer.

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Driving up through the Lake District along the edge of Windermere and Ullswater, the grey sky and rain made it all rather bleak. Taking the interesting and narrow road over Kirkstone Pass, the scenery was of drystone walls surrounding the fields and snaking up over the hilltops, veiled by low cloud and rain. At one of the highest points was a small white stone pub at 1,481 feet above sea level, sitting forlorn and closed in the hills, with  only herdwick sheep dotted around trying to shelter by walls and everything was wet and squelshy.

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Finally arriving at our first stop in Scotland just over the border at Bigger, we enjoyed views of the hills around us and walked the disused railway line alongside a golf course. Catching up with my cousin Roger and his wife Jo, we spent a wonderful evening at their house, great food and wine and lots of chatting. Plans were hatched for walk around Camp Reservoir with a picnic enroute. We were so lucky as the day dawned bright, sunny and definitely breezy, the hills surrounding the reservoir were scattered with ewes and lambs while crows and jackdaws floated across the landscape in the wind. The colours were bright with many different greens of grass and trees, the wind rippled water reflecting the sky and clouds and further along the pathway, towering white wind turbines with their long tapered arms circling around.

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Driving north cross country we gave Glasgow and its conurbations a very wide berth, where we finally picked up the road towards Aberfoyle in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. The off-road track through Three Lochs Forest Drive was really calm and tranquil and shortly after a couple of miles we found our stop for the night on the side of Loch Drunkie. (Permit required.) From our pitch among the pine trees we looked directly down a ‘finger’ of the loch from a raised vantage point.

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Being woken up in the early morning by a cuckoo calling was a wonderful moment, and with morning drinks in hand we watched a heron glide in on open wings to stand like a statue at the edge of the loch. Taking a walk after breakfast we followed the forest trail through the tall pine trees on stoned track with steep sides in places, yellow broom flowers and purple rhododendrons added splashes of colour, and then the loch appeared. Bluebells, foxgloves, stitchwort and red campion to the sides of the forest road, trees and grey sky reflected in the loch while mallard and teal still rested on margins allowing a lone common merganser to patrol the waters. Walking through the forest, the ground between the trees was like a green carpet of sphagnum moss, on fallen trees darker varieties of moss and ferns were everywhere, tiny violets and speedwell grew on the track edges. Birdsong was all around; wren, song thrush, chaffinch, great tit, blackcap, willow and garden warblers all striving to be heard, it was an amazing experience to be miles from anywhere and no traffic noise to compete with nature.

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Relocating to the side of Loch Lomond we stopped off at Firkin Point for the night with a view through trees. After a walk along the old road listening to garden and willow warblers, dodging a few midges and finally settling in for the night it was most strange to hear both cuckoo and tawny owl calling at 10pm, may be it was the light nights in Scotland as it isn’t dark until around 11pm.

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Heading for the A83 scenic drive through the Argyll Forest Park, around the top and along the north shore of Loch Tyne, the fairy tale turrets of Inveraray Castle came into view as we crossed a humped back bridge.

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Although the day was grey, some blue sky emerged for fleeting moments along with pale weak sunshine, so we made the most of exploring the gardens. Immediately around the castle were manicured lawns and formal flower beds full of colourful lupins and iris.

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To one side were rhododendrons and an arboretum with huge specimen trees. A vast spreading horse chestnut tree with a branch down to the ground that had sent up a new tree, and a close circle of pines with one in the centre had a high canopy like a cathedral.

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Inside the castle, we found it was still occupied as a home and thought of as a palace as it had never been used as a fortification. The entrance hallway leads to a formal dining room decorated in a light and feminine style having hand painted floral wall panels and elaborate ceiling with two elegant chandeliers. To the opposite side of the hall was the Tapestry Room, the walls hung with large and detailed works, arched and panelled shutters were painted with botanical images which echoed the tapestries on the chairs and two more large chandeliers hung from the ceilings. In one the circular corner rooms was a lovely, floor to ceiling display of fine china and porcela In in from as far apart as Worcester (UK) and China apparently some was still in use

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An amazing Armoury took pride of place in the centre of the palace, it had been ordered by the 5th Duke in 1783 and consisted of 1,300 piece. Every square inch of wall was filled with displays of muskets, pole-arms, axes, pistols and broadswords in which were last used at the battle of Culloden in the mid 18th century.

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A large drawing room overlooked the gardens, the walls hung with multitudes of portraits and artefacts were displayed with relevant information, it was darker than other rooms and not my favourite. Moving upstairs, a legend says that a magnificent four-poster bed was moved from the old Inverary Castle after a young Irish harp player was murdered; the bed now stands in a large and well lit room, but is still haunted by the boy’s ghost. The heavy double layer of drapes make it look cosy, but I don’t think I’d like to sleep in it.

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Finally in the Clan Room we saw a beautiful display of regimental drums, each decorated and gilded. A family tree has been painted with The Campbell branches of the family all the heraldic emblems, tracing the Clan back to 1477. There was a list of surnames that were accepted descendants of the Campbell’s, the largest Clan in the world, and Harris was one of them; so we are related to them …. maybe!

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