Category: caravanning

Island over the sea

deer at lochranzaCan there be a better advertisement for a natural, nature-friendly campsite than this, red deer grazing outside your door, guaranteed, any time of the day or night? However these creatures are not put there just to add interest for the campers. Indeed they may be regarded as something of a nuisance for they are somewhat casual about where they leave their droppings and they can hop over onto the golf course next door as easily as wander into the road. They know the area so well and seem to assume the grass is put their entirely for their benefit. After all this is their home, and has been so for longer than anyone can remember. From the first steps ashore from the ferry at Lochranza on the Isle of Arran we notice how garden fences and gates are built shoulder high rather than at waist level, as if to ensure the inhabitants don’t escape onto the road. Only later do we twig that we’ve seen this height of fence before on Forestry land. It is the height that a deer cannot jump. So on Lochranza deer are being kept out of gardens, full as they are with such a delicious variety of food items, and the fences are not (just) to keep dangerous locals under control. light through treesThey certainly have remarkable freedom (the deer, that is) and their behaviour is tolerated far beyond what might be expected. The rut, for instance, when the stags bellow endlessly and joust amongst themselves for the ladies, must be a particularly trying time for those living here yet they seem to have adapted to this, stepping around the odd gaggle of hinds when they have to just as we do on the campsite.

We consider ourselves blessed as the sun comes out in some force after only one day of torrential rain at the start of our five day visit, a day that gave the legs a chance to recover from our eight mile coastal afternoon hike around the Cock of Arran on our first day. The worst part was when we were already tired and at our furthest point from ‘home’ when our path forced its way tortuously through a boulder field, studded with ankle wrecking dangers as well as being well supplied with midges and other biting insects. Given enough wind, midges generally find flying too difficult so the presence of a fresh breeze when out walking is normally welcome. tickLess easy to avoid however, especially when passing through waist-high bracken, are the ticks, tiny black creatures who scuttle down beneath the clothing then latch on using a barbed probe, penetrating the skin to, well, suck up their host’s juices. The itching generally does not start until later and then goes on well after the creature’s now swollen body is extracted, a process that involves a specially shaped device and exceptionally good eyesight. Given that these beasts can carry Lyme disease a full body inspection is recommended after walking through any long vegetation, a minor price to pay really for the pleasure of so much fabulous scenery.

From Machrie Moor we look across Kilbrannan Sound to our home on Kintyre, where less than three miles away, our village nestles at the foot of its valley. Machrie standing stones3Although nobody can ever be certain about the precise date, I can say that some time after the last ice retreated 12,000 years ago and before about 750 BC, some large stones were dragged across Arran and firmly stood on end in such a way that they still remain standing today. As to how this remarkable feat was achieved or why it was done nobody alive today really knows, which seems quite sad considering the effort that must have been involved. Today we might use a large crane to lift something this heavy into place but archaeologists doubt that such things had been invented back then so the whole place is surrounded in mystery. We can speculate that their commanding presence, and there are lots of them here placed in circles or arranged in alignments that today we can only guess at, must have been quite stunning to those passing by when they were first erected… and they have lost little of that today.Machrie standing stones5

Before coming to live in Scotland we had never heard of this magical place. So it seems strange that we should discover something like this so close to our home. In some ways it’s rather like finding Stonehenge is just down the road although the hoards of tourists are missing here. Remoteness does have its advantages.

To complete our slow circumnavigation of the isle of Arran we steer Ducky over the String Road back to Brodick, a long climb over the central mountainous backbone with a fast descent on the other side. Ducky on Cloanaig ferryI regret to say that Arran has benefited little financially from our visit; only two nights were spent on formal campsites and most of our food was brought with us from home. There are plenty of places where we can pull off the road, get tucked in behind a few trees and find isolation and a quiet place to sleep, so apart from the cost of the ferry (twenty minutes spent sitting in a gently swaying van or waving farewell from the upper deck) this has been a cheap holiday. Our walking boots return a little muddier and our faces a little ruddier from exposure to the sun but we feel richer and wiser knowing what lies across the sea from our home.

Ducky’s meanderings – 3

Perhaps it might have been more sensible had we, prior to setting out on this broadly clockwise trip around ScotlandDunnet Head, researched likely campsites to see which were open and whether they suited our needs. But sometimes leaving campsite selection to chance can be rather fun, adding spice to the whole caravanning experience. It is a gamble that could go wrong of course, leaving us trawling the streets late at night like homeless immigrants, but as things have turned out so far we have struck lucky, always finding pleasant sites or else quiet spots where we can just pull off the road. True, we did pay a £10 premium in Dunnet Bay because we are not part of the exclusive Caravan Club elite, and that did hurt a bit, but we made up for it two nights later by pulling off the single track road beside Loch Brora and sleeping for free (although Kate tells me that the owls were noisy – I was too busy sleeping to notice).

Dunnet Head being the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland, the only way for us now is south as we are saving the Orkneys for another day. So it is that we rumbled into Helmsdale, one of so many tiny east coast fishing ports to have sprung into being when the seas were full to bursting with herring. TimespanWhilst refreshing ourselves in the Timespan cafe we discover a way to explore the town in an interesting way, on a waymarked tour, so off we set on foot. A little over half way round, at the harbour, we meet a man called Jim Mackay, something of a local attraction although not figuring at all in the leaflet we are carrying. There he is standing in the sun at his front door greeting us in Gaelic and before long we are being treated to snippets of his long life story and being shown photos of relatives from his Canadian past. We surmise that some 200 years ago his ancestors, crofters living in the valley of Strath Kildonan behind the coastal town, were being evicted as part of the Highland Clearances. Many crofters from this area travelled to Canada to seek a better life (one ending up as Canada’s prime minister) but many, like Jim’s family, later returned to Helmsdale to live. We have read about and seen evidence of the Clearances in the lonely ruins dotted about the glens everywhere we have travelled in Scotland – it is a shameful part of the history of this country when the urge for profit for a few tore apart a centuries old way of life for the many – and suddenly we are confronted by a living piece of this history who stops us at random for a chat. Full of character and good humour he charms us both and only very reluctantly do we eventually take our leave of this place.

Equally charming and enthusiastic is the holidaying French policeman we meet with his family at Portmahomack on the Dornoch Firth. What brings him to this remote spot we don’t find out but he seems delighted to find two people who both understand and can speak a little of his language, although his own spoken English is exceptionally good. We leave him so he can indulge himself at the nearby Glenmorangie distillery (ah yes, that is why he is there) then drive off to try our camp site searching luck along the Cromarty Firth.

Kate’s father was at one time stationed in the RAF at Evanton and fortune once again shines on us by guiding us to an excellent site here. Then no sooner have we staked our claim to a pitch when we spy a small sign saying ‘Forest Walk’ on the edge of the site, pointing towards the dense skyline of trees. Now as it happens these two words are something we invariably find irresistible, and especially when need to stretch our legs after a long drive, so after a quick spot of lunch, off we go again.

This forest, however, has an amazing surprise waiting for us just a short climb away.Kate on gorge bridge A geological anomaly seems to have caused the river flowing down from the hills to fall into a narrow chasm whose weakness the river then exploited by making it immensely deep without any significant broadening. Black Rock Gorge is the result, a natural phenomenon hidden away in dense forest just a short distance from us. Black Rock gorgeA wooden bridge built to enable walkers to cross from one side to the other, gives no impression of the chasm beneath until one is precisely half way across, when finally the narrow cleft below, leading apparently, into the bowels of the earth, opens up. Looking down, the vegetation on both sides is lush and green, right to the bottom where there is a glint of silver from the river as it rushes through far below. Here, hidden away modestly, is a tourist goldmine par excellence, reserved only for the few who venture forth in a disorganised fashion, taking in whatever comes their way. We know that by travelling about so randomly we must miss a lot but somehow this is compensated for by what we do discover, on our own, by following our instincts or our noses, helped only by serendipity.

Ducky’s meanderings – 2

How do you define’ ‘bad weather’?north atlantic gale In the mind of the manager of the Durness campsite, bad weather is when it is too windy for the ferry across the estuary to the Cape Wrath headland to operate, this being largely because the ferry is part of his small business empire, and no doubt a nice little tourism earner too. In many people’s eyes if you have come this far then the last few miles to Cape Wrath itself are almost essential, despite the headland being entirely devoted to the military so that there’ll be no stepping out to explore without someone in uniform shooting at you. So a windy day is bad news for some then.

Our van has been shuddering all night, buffeted from side to side and lashed with rain. However in the morning with the wind still howling, building in strength, when we finally peep our noses outside Ducky’s warm interior after our almost sleepless night we find the rain has stopped, the sky is blue and the sun beams down. So despite the fact that standing upright outside is a struggle and anything light enough to carry will fly off at speed downwind if let loose, to us this is good weather.

But we have had enough of the ‘windiest campsite in Britain’ and have resolved to find somewhere more sheltered for the night ahead as this promises to be equally windy, if not more so. Our eastward journey begins with an awe inspiring cliff-top drive which gives us views down onto golden sandy bays where the sea is a turquoise blue and the wave-tops are blown off into dazzling white mist. Kate and erraticThe strength of the wind is quite staggering, but nothing prevents us from stopping to examine the ‘erratic’ perched on a hillock close beside our road. It may seem selfish but in some ways we are grateful that this wild place is not everybody’s cup of tea so we get to enjoy it without having to share the experience. The roads are almost empty of traffic (which is just as well as ‘A’ roads in this part of the world are single track) and the tourist season is barely underway anyway. Of course this can have its drawbacks too, as we discover when trying to find a site for the night ahead. Each village (Sutherland has no towns) we pass proudly advertises the facilities it offers, many boasting caravan and camping facilities to die for, but finding them proves impossible; they are either closed or too well hidden. At Talmine we are tempted away down a tiny lane by a large brown sign and discover an empty field, close by the sea, with a sign on the gate that reads ‘Site Full’. Our intelligence insulted we drive past and soon pull up beside the tiny village harbour to make ourselves comfortable for the night. We have everything we need on board so if our money is not needed through lack of enterprise then the loss is not ours.

Kyle of Tongue rainbow

From our own private site we gaze out across the Kyle of Tongue and watch the battle between the Atlantic swell rolling in around the headland and the fierce south-westerly wind coming down the Kyle. A mist hangs over the sea, fine spray being picked up from each wave crest, and a distant rainbow hovers above the horizon supporting an arch of clouds like some unearthly bridge. An obliging visitor cavorts in the sea close by so we can sit inside with our eyes glued to binoculars. Bird No.1 in our Pocket Guide is a Great Northern Diver, something of a rarity it seems, but one has chosen this spot to grab a bit of dinner while we cook ours. I always find it hard to understand how such small creatures can survive in what is to us such a hostile environment but he seems to spend more time beneath the waves than above, suggesting that his perception of the world is vastly different from ours. Oblivious to the wind above, his world is perhaps calmer and more predictable than ours.

Ducky’s meanderings – 1

Garve woods

Late one afternoon we pull off the road at a sign indicating forest walks and a public toilet, both of which seem like a good idea and together, even better. We are confident that a night spent here will be undisturbed since Scotland’s laws respect this behaviour, so long as we are doing no harm, so we follow the path which takes us downstream to another bridge then stroll back up again on the other bank as the evening sunlight slopes through the trees. After cooking up a meal in the car park we draw the curtains and sleep, with not a soul to disturb us.

Several days later and we stop at the Clachtoll campsite which nestles into the machair between a couple of rocky headlands. Jim Galway (not the flautist, the campsite manager) makes us feel welcome then invites us to a ceilidh later in the evening. Clachtoll rocksHe plays the whistle with some skill but we think his namesake might just have the edge on him.

Clachtoll, meaning ‘cleft rock’, is an apt description of the formation visible from our campsite with a backdrop of the Coigach mountains we had explored earlier in the day. The rocks here are mudstone, more resistant to erosion than that name suggests, overlaying a bed of Lewisian gneiss, the oldest rocks found anywhere in the British Isles. Mudstone breaks into regular chunks, which made it a good building material for the ancient broch we set off to explore before cooking our evening meal. Kate with runrigsThe signs of earlier settlements are plain to see on the landscape, raised mounds across the grassy slopes showing clearly where farming once took place on ‘lazy-beds’, and of course there are more recent ruins everywhere, houses abandoned to the Highland clearances.

To get here, earlier in the day we had followed a minor road, the road to end all roads, that hugs the Inverpolly coastline as best it can through some incredible terrain. Shown only as a fine yellow line on our OS map it cuts through amazing scenery and for its entire length the road is barely wide enough to fit a vehicle like ours. In places there were rocks sticking out jaggedly to the right while a stone wall to the left tried to guard us from sliding off into the sea some distance below. Without a doubt Ducky is the largest vehicle one would want to drive along here and the experience was at times a little over-exciting. This thin, tortured, strip of tarmac between the settlement at Badnagyle and the village of Strathan ranks as the most enjoyable piece of road we have ever encountered and driven along. Breath-taking views appear around every turn, once we are skirting the edge of a small loch then next, twisting down a tree-filled river valley (the river being in spate) before turning another corner where tiny inlets cut into the splintered coastline.buttress It is best not to be in a hurry here for who knows whether another like-minded driver will appear around the next corner or when a meandering sheep will materialise in the middle of the road.

And all the while the sun shone for us while the breeze lifted rain clouds over our heads onto the mountains further inland. At Lochinver we took a break to recuperate in the heritage centre, one of the best we have seen, and particularly informative about the geological past of this area, the land having been shaped and re-shaped by ice of immense depth that once covered everything except the biggest summits. The scars left behind are everywhere to see and erratics, boulders transported on the ice and deposited on its melting, lie dotted about like lonely monoliths.

More meandering roads soon bring us to Durness, a place where the road turns east as the land runs out. There are fewer roads to choose from now so we might have seen the last of our tiny yellow twisting lanes for a while but we plan to spend a few days here so this doesn’t matter. Then the campsite manager delivers unsettling news about a spell of bad weather which would prevent us taking the small passenger ferry across the Kyle to visit Cape Wrath. This really does concern us since in this part of the world a local’s definition of  bad weather is inevitably going to be pretty extreme, by the standards of those of us from more southerly climes. What concerns us even more is that the campsite seems to offer no pitches which might offer any shelter from the south-westerly gale that is coming and the position we eventually choose feels exposed already even before the gale gets going. In the night that follows we are shaken from side to side as the wind roars around us while torrential wind-blown rain hammers away on the roof. Sleep comes in small parcels as the storm builds to its peak around three in the morning but bang on cue as forecast at seven the sun comes out in force, just like the night never happened.

Winter is over

I can say with some certainty at this moment that winter is over here in Scotland. The weather will deliver up its usual flavours of wind and rain, no doubt, but I can be confident that it will remain mild, perhaps unseasonably so, right through until summer takes hold. How do I know this? Well because in our living room we have now have a wood-burning stove providing lots of warmth to the house and an embarrassment of hot water too. stove in actionAll winter we waited for the moment when the big white van would stop outside our door and Robert the stove fitter would stagger in the door with the heavy steel beast to begin the installation. All through the coldest months, the gales and storms, the floods, the hail, we sat on the sofa and warmed our hands before an imaginary fire, wishing we could have a real one before winter ended, but our prayers going unanswered. Nothing we could think of doing would bring it to us any quicker, no magic words, no strategy nor financial incentive. We had placed our order and just had to wait our turn, wait for this moment to arrive. All this time we knew we could be certain of just one thing; that it would happen eventually. And so it did, just as the weather warmed. But fortunately we live in a place where the first signs of spring are accompanied by chilly afternoons and nights so our new acquisition does add the sudden benefit to our lives that we’d expected. And thus it is that I find myself slipping into the morning routine of clearing the ash, laying the paper and kindling in joyful expectation of the afternoon or evening to come when I can strike a match and watch the flames spread.

Rather than become too single-minded, however, for some weeks now we have been hatching another plan; to load up Ducky with provisions and head off northwards, in the general direction of the North Pole. A brief glance at a map reveals that there is a sizable chunk of Scotland that sits between us and the Arctic Ocean and it is this that we are keen to explore, right up to the very edge of the last piece of  land. So we abandon Carradale one wet morning, after taking fresh food parcels from house to campervan, stuffing warm clothes into cupboards and filling water containers to the brim, then just turn north along the edge of Kintyre and keep going.

The heavy overnight rain still falls as we charge through deep puddles which drench every inch of the van with mud-stained spray and it still falls heavily as we lurk in the car park outside Oban’s Lidl. But no sooner have we finished our shopping, stocking up on Campo Largo baked beans and Crusti Croc paprika flavoured crisps like we hadn’t seen a Lidl for months (which is true), when suddenly the clouds part and the sun shines down. In the blinking of an eye Scotland performs the magic trick we love, winter becomes spring, rain becomes shine, dark becomes light, wet becomes dry. My dark glasses are resting on my nose once more as I gaze out at Mull’s looming peaks across a sparkling sea. Ah yes, this is why we left our lovely new stove behind.

We do not intend to travel quickly as there is much to see along the way, loads of scenery to take in, so when I write the words “250 miles later” it needs to be said that nearly three days have elapsed since leaving home. We move along at a gentle pace.road to Ullapool

But as it happens just 250 miles distant by road from Carradale (Ducky choosing to use imperial measurements) there is a mountainous chunk of rock going under the name Stac Pollaigh (which is pronounced ‘stack polly’). It stands 613 metres (according to our metrified map) above sea level and 549 metres above the car park that lies just below. More than thirty years ago when I visited this part of Sutherland I charged up Stac Pollaigh, as I was wont to do in those days when a summit looked as though it needed to be conquered, then danced along the summit’s rocky ridge, before galloping all the way down again and driving off somewhere else. I made a promise, as do so many others who climb this iconic hill, that I would one day return. stac-450Which explains why Kate and I find ourselves in assault mode tackling the steep path which winds its way to the top, not alone, but in the company of both old and young, first timers and old hands like me, many of whom are also returning for the first time in thirty years. The summit’s very proximity to a road as well as its isolated position in the landscape make it into a ‘must do’ climb that traps many who come this way. It is just that sort of place.

It turns out to be a windy climb, the air cooling noticeably for each upward step we take, and we are not disposed to hang about on the summit ridge nor indeed dance along it. The strength of the wind makes this unwise. Instead we find a little shelter and wolf down the cream cakes that have made the ascent in my backpack, before pointing ourselves downhill again. With little warning a rain squall chooses this moment to attack and what seemed like an easy path becomes somewhat trickier as the wind tries to pluck us off the hill. Within minutes we are drenched to the skin and thoroughly chilled but away to the west we can see a line of blue sky so this is where we head, knowing we’ll be dry again in minutes once the rain stops. Scottish weather never disappoints.

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