The Scottish Highlands: Into the Wild

Our idea was simple: get a car in Glasgow and head off north towards the Outer Hebrides improvising our route on the way.
How naive.
Since a couple of years the usual national tourism has been joined by even more visitors from Europe and North America, thus saturating the entire accommodation market of West Scotland. Our trip has been then decided on the basis of where was the next available room, which prevented us from reaching the Hebrides but gave us some surprises. The first of which is a small island called Easdale.

Oban and surroundings

A quick search during our first night in Glasgow was enough to present us with hard evidence: the Isle of Skye was already full to the brim with tourist, and the Isle of Mull was inaccessible as there was no way to find a combination of: available room, a ferry to the island and a ferry back from the island.
We then decide to stop in Oban, the town famous for its whisky, gateway to the Highlands. It’s really worth a visit, a whisky tasting, a decent meal and an ice-cream before entering the terra incognita where you might find the only restaurant in miles closing at 5pm. Less than one hour drive from there there’s Ellenabeich, where we park the car to and take the ferry to cross the 100 metres strip of sea to Easdale Island. We sleep in a tiny coal shed ingenuously transformed in a en-suite bunkhouse, enjoying for a short while the life of an island so small it can be strolled around in one hour. What’s to see here? Nothing, and everything. If you’re after stunning landmarks you’re in the wrong place. Scotland’s charme works on its own time and has to be enjoyed without rash, taking in every moment of it.

Loch Ness and the tourists of Scotland

The northward road runs along that long strip of lakes that seems to cut Scotland diagonally in two. It starts in Fort Williams, base camp for Ben Nevis excursions and walks in the surrounding woods, and goes until Loch Ness. In Fort Augustus, the town at the southern tip of the famous lake, we get stuck. Tourists are clogging the only road, queuing to cross the rotating bridge or to decide which service station to go to. All of this made worst by the left-hand traffic and by the flock-of-sheep instincts that somehow take over even the sanest people when on holiday. Along the lake there’s people everywhere, in cars, camper vans and tour bus, stopping to take a photo, buying some taking souvenir or booking the unmissable cruise on the loch. Which is just a long narrow lake, like most of the other Scottish lochs, and not even the prettiest I’ve seen.
I’m astonished by the amount of business created around an invented story, but then I think of places like Lourdes or Medjugorje and Nessie seems more innocuous.

Ullapool and the Wild

More than just innocuous, Nessie ends up being helpful. Thanks to it most of the people won’t venture further from the lake shores and we end up sharing the road with just few other tourists for the rest of our trip. We head towards Ullapool taking a scenic coastal route, which I highly recommend. As previously mentioned Scotland is not a place where you use your car to go from A to B, because for real here the travel matters more, or as much as, the destination. Along the way we found woods abundant with blueberries, a castle with a cattle of hairy coos in its garden and, in an all but deserted valley, we witnessed a solitary majestic deer crossing the road and stopping to look at us, looking at him. All you could hear was the stomping of his hoofs.

Ullapool is a pretty coastal town, one of the few in the area offering more than a restaurant and even a big supermarket. From our B&B window we could enjoy a spectacular view on the ocean reaching inland like a fjord. Not far from there, driving north along the coast, you can follow for Rhue to enjoy a beautiful sunset by a lighthouse. And you’ll be most likely swarmed by midges.

Lochinver and the North-West Beaches

From the port of Ullapool you can take the ferry to Stornoway on the Outer Hebrides, unless you get there during the 4 days of Celtic Fest, like we did. The festival doubles the island population, and for its duration all ferries are fully booked. We then end up having more days than we expected to spend in a place we didn’t expect, so we invest our time exploring the coastal routes around Lochinver travelling, on an average, at walking speed. Without the luxury of time we would have missed a colony of seals, hiding in a bay visible only from a specific points along the road. We wouldn’t have taken all the deviations, some of which took us to unexpected white sand beaches with turquoise water, like tropics with Scottish weather. And mostly we wouldn’t have had time to spend with the locals, a people hardened by the weather but not disheartened by it. We were welcomed with warmth and friendliness that went way beyond our expectations.

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