Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The last great wilderness

Given that I have lived practically all my life among the hills of England and Wales, you might be forgiven for thinking that when it came to spending part of each year in Scotland, we might just have gone for a change of scenery. What about the big skies and flatter landscape of eastern Scotland, or even a small, friendly market town, with all the activities that would afford us?

The trouble was that by the time this became a possibility for us with my retirement from parish ministry, we had already succumbed irrevocably to the lure of what is often called the last great wilderness in Britain – the north-west Highlands, and especially the county of Sutherland.

Ben Hope from Loch Eriboll
Until 2002, despite the fact that DH is a Scot by birth and ancestry, if not by upbringing, the furthest north either of us had ever been was the island of Mull, off the west coast. We spent a happy, if rather damp and midge-bitten, week there immediately after DH retired, and though we enjoyed it immensely, felt no strong pull to return.

Loch Naver

That year, in a desperate attempt to wean me away from the idea of a cottage in France, DH suggested we look for a small campervan, which would enable us to visit lots of places, rather than just one. After an interesting search, to say the least, we finally settled on the smallest van we could find (not a Transit, actually, but a Peugeot) and took the plunge.

Our first long trip took place that summer, on our return from my nephew’s wedding in Belfast. We arrived at Stranraer and as we disembarked from the ferry, simply turned left and headed north. Over the next ten days we circumnavigated a considerable proportion of Scotland’s coast, from Ullapool in the west to the Scottish Borders on the east.

Loch Torridon

Ardvreck Castle, Assynt

As we travelled north into the vast emptiness of Assynt and Durness, then turned east along the north coast, we found ourselves almost overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring grandeur of the area. Gradually we found ourselves falling in love with the extraordinary, rugged beauty of this ancient landscape, with its mountains and lochs, its cliffs and islands, its empty, golden beaches, its tiny, isolated settlements and its long, hard and often tragic history.

Sango Bay, Durness

Cape Wrath

Sandwood Bay

By the time we drove down the east coast and back into England, the damage was done. Despite its remoteness and the long, tiring drive there and back, we knew that this was our bit of Scotland and always would be. Its beauty, emptiness and sheer scale, and the constant interplay of mountains, sky and water, satisfy something deep within us.

Loch Eriboll

One day we will be too old to make the trip and will have to content ourselves with our photographs and our memories. Until then, twice a year, in spring and autumn, we load up the campervan and make what must be one of the most beautiful journeys in the world, up through the heart of the Highlands to the very northernmost edge of mainland Britain. Believe me, what we find there is worth every mile.


  1. What beautiful photos. Each year we discuss going to Scotland as I have a yearning to remove myself from civilization and try to live the simple life. But are Scottish midges really as bad as everyone says or is it a ploy to keep the tourist away?

  2. Oh, Scotland is absolutely wonderful, Curate's Wife, though the midges most definitely aren't. They ignore DH but eat me alive, so we now always visit outside the midge season, which runs from June to September. April to May is a lovely time to be here, or late September into October for the heather.

  3. Stunning pics! I've only ventured the once into Scotland - and was put off by the midges. I don't think we'll get to visit now but will enjoy it vicariously through your lovely images.

  4. Glad you like them, Annie. Yes, the midges do take the edge off one's pleasure. Sigh.... But even midges wouldn't stop me coming back now. I just love it too much.

  5. Beautiful, beautiful photos, especially of Ardvreck and Cape Wrath. I have heard tell of the legendary beauty of Sandwood Bay but have never (yet) made it up to the north-west. It's on my list!

    The midges are not too bad in our part of Perthshire, but I have been eaten alive on Loch Lomond-side and in Glen Affric. Squaddies swear by Avon 'Skin-so-soft' to keep them at bay. (Unlikely but true!) Otherwise, yes, come in spring or autumn - the weather's at its best then anyway.

  6. I'm planning a trip already, now that I've seen your beautiful photos! We did not make it to that part of the country when we were there (many years ago now) on our honeymoon. Lovely!

  7. Avon works.
    Not for me, I'm immune since childhood, but all our friends who visit Scotland in the midge season have found it effective...and it works in Costa Rica too.
    I'm just trying to remember things my father told me about Sutherland...the Brawn Seer? Who predicted the railway?

  8. Thanks, Dancing Beastie. Ardvreck made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Extraordinary! Hope you make it to Sandwood Bay one day.

    Thanks for the tip about Avon 'Skin-so-soft'. I've a vague memory of having heard about it, but now I'll google and find a supplier. Sounds like it would work on mozzies in France too. That would be a result!

  9. Penny, that sounds like some honeymoon trip you had there. We only made it as far as the Lake District :-) If you're planning another trip, do allow time to go north if you can. It's rather hard to get to, but so worth the effort.

  10. Fly, I'm so envious. To be immune to midge bites sounds wonderful! Our son-in-law grew up in the West Highlands surrounded by them, but they still bite him, poor man. Must tell him about Avon SSS.

    No-one's mentioned the Brawn Seer to me as yet - shall make enquiries and report back.

  11. Oooh those photos brought back memories of holidays over the last two years in these places. I just love mountains and the feel of real wilderness. Beautiful. Hoping to go back to the North West again this year if time permits. Need my fill of mountains! And yes I can recommend Skin So Soft - our island farmers smell of so sweet in August (Orkney midge season) as they cover themselves in the stuff before climbing into the tractors!

  12. Glad they refreshed your happy memories, Sian, until you can get back there again.

    I'm so impressed by all the recommendations for "Skin-so-soft" that I've googled suppliers and am about to order. I love the thought of all those lemon-scented Orkney farmers in their tractors :-)

  13. Great photos, and nice words too! I've not been in Tongue a full year yet, but they were not too bad in early June, nor from late August onwards. My wife enthusiastically promotes Smidge, a recent introduction arising out of a serious research programme! Anti-hay fever tablets don't stop them biting, but do stop the bites from itching!

  14. Thanks, Stewart and lovely to see you here. Thanks too for the information about Smidge. Now added to my shopping list - I'll try anything not to be bitten by midges and mozzies.

  15. It was the Brahan seer...sorry about the spelling. He'll probably put a curse on me...

  16. LOL! He might if he ever existed:-)Thanks for the correction, Fly. I've just spent an interesting few minutes googling him.

  17. This part of Scotland is just glorious. It also looks like parts of the Otago region here - which had many, many Scot's settlers.

    I hope you continue to have a lovely time up there, and that you all have a peaceful and Happy Easter, Michelle and Zebby Cat (awake for once!)

  18. Hi Michelle, thanks for the Easter wishes and the same to you.

    Yes, it's a marvellous area and we love it here. I think the Scots who emigrated to New Zealand must have felt at home with the scenery there. Part of the tragic history of this area is the number of people forced to emigrate because of poverty and being displaced from their land by the Highland Clearances.

  19. Oh my goodness, is this Scotland. I had absolutely no idea it was so lovely. I've only done the border Abbeys, Montrose, and lovely Edinburgh.

    Lucky, lucky you. A camper van is one of the desires of my heart--but it still seems cheaper for us to rent them, which we do 2-3 times a year. With 2 kids at school, we are more grounded than I would like to be!!

  20. It is indeed, Anita, and I'm very glad to be the one who introduced you to it :-)

    Yes, we conside ourselves very lucky to have dicovered this area and to be able to spend time here, but it only happened long after out two left home. To be honest, it's so far to come from the south of England that most children would drive you mad before you got here. Better to wait til you can do it without them.


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