After Rome we took some time to go up north - aiming for John O'Groats. We blasted north aiming for Stirling. We arrived 5 minutes after the Wallace monument closed (shouldn't have had the pee stop!) but made good time so headed on a scenic route further north looking for a farm stay (dad likes farms ok!?) and found a BRILLIANT pub in a village called Braco. The food was AMAZING and the hospitality matched. Its a teeny little town on a most fabulous scenic route north of Stirling and I'd recommend it a thousand times over - just brilliant! We ate like kings and we slept like logs!
From Braco we aimed north and for JO'Gs via Pitlochry then via Inverness then north to Wick where we stopped to take a look at Wicks Old Castle. A chance discovery that was just a ruined tower on a cliffs edge - very dramatic but much more for the fact that the Atlantic was completely still like glass and the grey colour of teh sky to the point where you couldn't tell where one started and the other ended - a truly magical sight!
We amazed at the brightness of the gorse (a weed in NZ) and the landscape and the glass like ocean and the dozens of tiny little villages hugging cliffs or sprawling across bleak moor-liek landscapes. Its truly a different world up there.
From Wick we carried on up to John O Groats, so we've done end to end of this fair isle, then on to Dunnet head to truly reach the top of the country. We looked at the little crofts on the islands off this coast and admired the birds swooping and floating on the air buffetting the cliffs and just amazed at the absolute bleakness of this most nothern place. And we carried on.
We were looking for a B&B and though we stopped here and there there wasn't anything that didn't make you feel a little uncomfortable until finally we came to Betty Hill and an interesting B&B at the top of the hill before the hotel. A family run farm running off the main road through the village - they had a stag called merlin or something similar up in the hills behind the house and one brother lived on one side and across the road and another in the family home all farmers or at least helping out. the landlady in her 80s was as energetic as someone 40 years younger and an absolute treasure. The beds were comfortable and night didn't arrive til well after 10pm! The hotel restaurant feed you as if you were 20 stone and starving and the young waitress was a very sweet girl so they got the thumbs up as well. There were sheep everywhere with their wool falling off. Mum was hopeful they were the new breed that self sheers (or sheads I guess) but it is apparently some sort of parasite and the common grazing encourages it so some farmers have invested a lot of money in fencing out these poor infected animals. A bit of a downer but very interesting to hear about the route cause being the removal of the law for dipping and the police observation. I could go on about this and the removal of the in-hospital training of nurses but I wont - get in touch if you really want to hear my world chagning arguments! :-)
After a scrummy breakfast (Full english/scottish breakfasts are the whole reason for B&Bs I tell you now!) we headed further around the coast aiming for the middle of this most northerly tip so we could head back south. Little did we know this was going to be the start of an EXTREMELY long day!
We set off and the weather was immediately better than it had been all week - sunshine and calm skies as far as you could see. The countryside reminded me of postcards I've received from America - mountains and valleys and rocky bedded rivers - just fantastic. And then we rounded a corner and my breath was truly taken away. We had come to the top of a Loch that was glassy and reflected perfectly the mountains rising up from its southern end. the hills sides to either side were all colours of heather and grass and rock and it was just the most magical thing I have ever seen. I'll dig out a photo and post it soon...
We travelled the full length of the Loch and rounded the southern most tip aiming south and for Lairg - home town of a good friend of my dads. Having come up the east coast and seen the bleakness stretching out towards the grey ocean heading down the middle where it was a little more craggy and a lot less coastal (surprise, surprise) was a nice change. The roadside around the aforementioned loch warned campervans (Achtung!) to watch out for sheep and lambs and to go slowly in german and in english and provided entertainment for a short time before we then hit the less interesting landscapes that lead toward Lairg. This town is fairly picturesque and sat in a much more hilly, loch side location than what we had been passing through. It had a distinctly swiss feel to it (something about the houses) and was quite small so we didn't stop long but headed on south aiming for Inverness again where we would transfer over to the West Coast (like my scottish home) and head down beside Loch Ness.
The east coast of scotland is quite different to the west coast in that the dramatic highland landscapes of the westcoast are a complete contrast to the largely moor-like (yet still dramatic) land of the east and the swtich from East to West is immediately apparent. It was like crossing into a completely different country. Perhaps it was this that kept us going...on and on. We headed down Loch Ness through villages and towns thinking if we were lucky we may make it past Fort William but no problem if not - we'd just get a room there for the night. We made such good time we got into and through Fort Augustus then Fort William well before we expected and headed south for Inverary (via a small detour because I read the map wrong!) and toward some lunch.
The first port of call on the way was past Ballachulish and into Glen Coe. If I were to say that anywhere was my spiritual home I would say it was this place. Which really does prove I'm over dramatic. That said I an honestly say it is truly the most beautiful place in all of Britian and probably all of Europe. And this time round it was crawling with ramblers. I will say no more.
From Glen Coe we aimed for Inverary and just enjoyed the ride... Lunch here we come.
Having made a habit this trip of having toasted ham sandwiches for my midday repast I was quite looking forward to the same when we hit inverary but it was not to be. We arrived amid a sea of motorbikes (well it was a good day for a ride) and parked up to have a look about. We wandered up the small main street and found the one or two eateries that looked promising and then decided on teh chippy (what can I offer as excuse but we were hungry?) I was quite amazed to discover that you can by a deep fried and battered black pudding the size of a small truncheon for your lunch in Inverary... That should have warned us. But we decided to try scottish fish and chips in teh hope they would be better than the ones we had in England. After 5 years I do know better than this and I still remain hopeful and optimistic. No the food was not better and I should have held out for a ham toastie but things cannot be undone so we will move on!
Replenished we did a bit of souvenir shopping (tartan hats with ginger wigs attached etc...) and then decided we should aim for Rest and Be Thankful. Another highlight from mum and dads last trip here where we went to Oban and decided to get the coach back to Glasgow rather than wait for the train. We had a magical trip that trip and saw seals in the bay, the family castle, Tobermory, and the coach ride topped it off (before Glasgow at least - the city had lots more to offer us when we arrived). Rest and Be Thankful is... I guess its the top of a Valley. The old road used to wind up from the Valley floor along the sides of a steep highland mountain to one side before reaching a point where you could stop, rest and be thankful that you had made it up the hill and it was all downhill from here. Its a magic place and I recommend passing by just to see it!
From here we were doing so well we headed for Glasgow (and Firkin point so I could finally get 'that' photo). We made such good time we decided to keep on going and aim for as far as we could get before we could go no further, or home. Whichever came first.
Dad was a legend - he drove all but 1 1/2 hours of the 16 hour journey. We made it back to Cambridge somewhere around midnight totally amazed that we'd done it. All the way from the top of the country! What a way to see Scotland. Bear in mind we've spent a lot of time in Scotland we were just doing a hit and run tour of the places we wanted to see once more really! And just so you know:
It takes longer to crawl up the east coast than drive down the west coast
And no we didn't see Nessy. I looked though! ;-)