We’ve just arrived back home in sunny Sussex after 6 windy winter months in Scotland. We never really planned that we would go to Scotland, it just sort of happened…
After trying out volunteering work for our first time in September I became a tad addicted to browsing the web for other places to volunteer, and soon stumbled upon a manor house in the Scottish highlands. The ad said you got your own cottage on the grounds and a food allowance for 25 hours work a week. I gave them an email not expecting to hear anything back, but not only did the owner say she’d like us to come along, she also agreed to pay for our petrol up to Scotland! The petrol was the only thing really holding us back, what if it didn’t work out and we had to drive 500miles back down south? So we decided to go for it, when I searched the location on a map I was really shocked at quite how north it was and the biggest town nearby was 40 miles away.
It was along the popular ‘Road to the Isles’ in between Fort William and Mallaig on the west coast. The manor was very impressive and was also a b&b. We were mainly helping out the gardener in the 20 acre grounds, weeding, pruning roses and making bonfires while literally running from lightning strikes in storms. Scotland was not without its bad weather, we stayed here for 4 months and the weather was bloody shit, windy and wet. One day we heard a whale had been washed up in the storms onto a nearby beach so Craig was sent down with the gardener to chainsaw some vertebrae for the owner – needless to say they came back smelling ‘fruity’ and Craig said flubber was flying everywhere from the chainsaw. We got a good taste of Scottish traditions here, as there were great pubs only a few miles from our house and they regularly had live music, not a cover band like you get down south but some times as many as 7 people playing fiddles, pipes, flutes, accordions and guitar together, I absolutely loved sitting in the pub with a roaring fire after a long walk and just listening to them play. We also experienced some great ceilidhs at the manor over the Christmas period, the ‘fit for a queen’ table would be moved to the side in the huge dining hall and space made for what could only be described as organized chaos. Amazingly everyone seemed to know each dance as the song came on and off they went spinning between one another. For New Years a firework display was put on at the front of the house on the lawn, there were men in kilts everywhere and tartan trousers galore. A young chap played the bagpipes before the fireworks were lit, then they shot up and diverted right towards the top of our heads. The wind was blowing our way and sparks were bouncing off the house, I’m surprised no one lost an eye or suffered a frazzled kilt.
We wanted to explore more of Scotland but it was too cold to camp in March so we headed north to Gairloch, to volunteer with a really friendly family that owned a wonderful tiny Island connected to the mainland by a floating footbridge. We got a nice variety of work to keep us busy for 25 hours of the week and the rest of the time was free to explore the surrounding area which was stunning. Compared to the boggy, moorland covered hills of Mallaig area which are tuff for hiking; we were treated to marked trails up in the mountains and incredible views. One hike had a 360 degree view of 31 Munros (mountains over 3000ft). The Beinn Eighe nature reserve was just up the road from us, with the huge Loch Maree glistening in the valley, and snow capped mountains all around, it reminded me of being back in the Himalayas. The scenery didn’t stop there, as the area had a cracking coastline with turquoise water and sandy beaches. Near the house on the island we’d see seals jumping through the water and the occasional Otter, it was a really amazing area.
In the beginning of April the weather warmed up a wee bit so we set off north, the west coast had loads to keep us busy and we were trying out our first ever wild camping in a tent as Scotland (unlike the rest of the UK) has a relaxed approach to this and with all the remote areas and long distance hikes it gives people the opportunity to camp freely as they go. The camping was more Craig’s idea than mine as from previous experience I can’t seem to sleep in a tent, their so uncomfortable and what the hell are you supposed to do if it’s raining all the time? Plus I didn’t want to hike miles with all the gear , but we were in luck on the west coast as we were able to park the car and only walk about 200 meters to a hidden area for the night, all of which were beside a loch of river; so extremely scenic and peaceful. We even managed to get some really nice weather, but the wind rarely stopped and was a bloody nightmare. Our first night was unbearably cold, my feet were frozen solid with 4 thick pairs of socks and slippers on, and we found out that one of our air beds had a puncture so for the rest of the trip we had to take it in turns to sleep on the good one. From then on we carried the duvet with us – how ridiculous we must have looked walking into a forest with backpacks and a massive duvet in our arms!
We spent one week slowly cruising along the North West which was a beautiful area, we did a great hike up Stac Pollaid, it was a circle route around the 612m high mountain. Around the back we split off on the upper route and ended up at the top section where we could see down two sides of the mountain, and on the other two sides rocky outcrops shot up around us, we managed to force our way through the immense winds that seemed to just funnel up here to an even higher area – but not the main summit, that we left for the pro’s! The views would have been superb had it not been for such an unusual smoggy day – nonetheless we got 360 degree views of lochs below us and unusual mountains in the distance which stood more singularly as appose to joined mountains with ridges that we were used to. We ended up finding an ideal spot to pitch for the night near the loch with the rocky mountain looming behind us. We stayed two days in this area and climbed The Fiddler, which was very tuff in the windy conditions especially as it was only 590m. As we reached the summit cairn it made my legs go wobbly as around the edges it dropped down about 500m vertically. There were lochs below and across from them was Stac Pollaidh, you could probably see our tent with a pair of binoculars.
On day 3 we finally woke up to crisp blue skies, we did a wonderful winding drive to Lochinver and then onto Achmelvic. I’d seen photos of the beaches in this area and I figured they must have been photo-shopped; the UK doesn’t have beaches that nice!! Boy was I eating my words as we started walking over the sand dunes and there it was: Paradise. The water was a brilliant turquoise, that faded into dark blue and the sand was nothing but the best – white, soft and squeaky clean. There was a shallow lagoon area and the water was as clear as a glass of water, you could see all the perfect ripple lines of the sand below and the black seaweed swaying on the rocks along the water’s edge made a beautiful contrast. Just over the sand dunes was another stunning bay, I really couldn’t believe how amazing it looked in person, such a shame it was bitterly cold in the wind otherwise a dip certainly would have been called for.
We spent a couple days up near Sandwood Bay, it’s a popular spot, especially in summer as its said to be one of Scotland’s best beaches, but I didn’t think much of it. Well, nothing was wrong with it, but the sun wasn’t shining, and that can make or break a beach, but also I much prefer little bays as appose to long ones, as Sandwood spans 1mile. It was a 13km return hike to the beach, but it wasn’t worth the hype in my opinion, as it loses its remote appeal from it being so popular. We did stumble upon a cute seal who abruptly shuffled along the sand into the sea as soon as it saw us and just swam along parallel to us as we walked along the beach.
The north coast of Scotland was very different to the west, we had one night camping on a stunning stretch of beach, we tried to pitch in an exposed grassy spot above the beach as the view from there was the best but trying to get the tent up in the insane winds was next to impossible, the tent was completely buckling and almost folding in half. It was so stressful trying to put it up even in the hidden sheltered spot we found afterwards, as instead of it being the constant gusts in the exposed section, it came out of nowhere here, so we’d relax a little and all of a sudden the tent would flap like mad and knock over everything, including our lit gas stove…that was fun.
From this point on wild camping became very tricky as the landscape changed before our eyes from moorland and mountains to flat green pastures full of adorable baby lambs. After 9 days we still hadn’t had a shower, I don’t know how I managed it, the longest we’ve ever gone without one in a campervan has been 4/5 days and that was bad. But with a constant wind in Scotland, we never really got sweaty – although I couldn’t have done it without my dear friends; baby wipes and dry-shampoo. Anyway, we noticed a swimming pool sign in the tiny village of Bettyhill and thought we’d ask if we could pay for a shower, boy was that the best £1.50 I ever spent. Not only did we get a wonderful shower and smell less like hobos, we took advantage of a book swap they had as somehow we’d accumulated over 10 books (a lot for ‘backpackers’) and we did 1 for 1 swaps on all of them – well, that just made my day! The next few days we moved fairly quickly, stopping at Dunnet Head, the UK mainland’s most northerly point, amazingly we were the only people there and all that lay there were a couple of signs and information panels, you could see all along the coastline from where we’d come, and north was the Orkney Islands. What a contrast it was to the tourist ridden John O’ Groats, with souvenir shops and cafes all around the area.
On our route south we visited Whaligoe steps; 365 steps were built in the 18th century for a measly £8 down to a small fishing port. We walked down and checked out the area, there was an old bothy style building and some interesting sea birds but not much else. It was only when we got back up the steps (we both counted how many there were and got it wrong!) that a friendly bloke approached us and asked what we thought of the steps, it turned out that his granddad used to fish down there and how he now maintains the steps but sadly every summer vandals come along and break them, now there are only 337 left. Apparently it was the women’s job to carry all the days catch up the steps and he showed us a really old photo taken from a boat looking into the area where the boats got pulled up onto and the salt curing house, it was much more interesting to see what the bits and bobs we saw were all used for. He also told us that it got its name due to whales getting stranded in the little cove and they ended up having to make a crane down the 240ft cliff face to pull the dead whales out – Whali-goe means Whale Inlet – or so we were told.
We passed a few impressive castles on the way to Inverness, but weren’t stopping in the city itself, I just wanted to go to Chanonry Point to try and see the bottlenose dolphins that regularly swim through this thin but deep section of the Moray Firth. The sea was ruff so it wasn’t looking good but after only 15minutes we saw a fin poke out, and then again! Sadly it was only one dolphin, I was hoping to see a few jumping out the water and high fiving each other but I guess I can’t always get my way! But to be fair this dolphin got very close to the shore, maybe only 10meters away from us and just skimmed along the water breaching and sinking under again.
I hadn’t done any research into where else I wanted to visit in Scotland, I knew I wanted to see Edinburgh while we were here, but I had a friend on the opposite coast. In the end we went for Edinburgh, as it gave us the chance to visit the Cairngorms National Park so a whole new change of scenery from the west coast. I was really glad we decided to go there as the area was just beautiful and full of pine forests. Over 1/3 of the park is over 600m in elevation and its home to five of the six highest mountains in the UK. We found a perfect hidden spot on the shores of Loch Garten to camp and spent 3 days exploring the many marked tracks in the park. It was a really stunning area dotted with lochs and forests, there was still snow on the highest peaks too and it all felt quite Canadian. Even though there were lots of very high mountains in the park, they looked more like hills, and were all rather rounded and rolled into one another rather than a pointy peak; however I’m sure they are much more impressive if you hiked into the more remote center of the park.
After the Cairngorms we made it to Edinburgh our final stop in Scotland before driving south back home. We ended up staying in a campground south of the city and had our 2nd shower in two weeks, hooray! It was a very convenient spot actually as a bus took us right from the campground and into the city where we enjoyed a long day of strolling around the cobbled streets in the old town and admiring the castles, it really was a pretty city.
On our way south, we spent one night in the Lake District and did a great walk up a hill right by the campground which was nice and handy. We also tried our hand at saving a lost lamb and failed miserably with it galloping in the air away from us. Every time we had strong winds while tenting we said ‘woaaah this is defiantly the worst we’ve experienced!’ but no, all those other times where I genuinely thought the tent would collapse on us and fly into the night with us inside were a piece of piss compared to this campground. It was situated in a scenic valley, otherwise known as a ‘WIND FUNNEL – DO NOT CAMP HERE!’. We tried pitching up as quick as possible to avoid it blowing away, trying to act like pro’s in front of the other campers, but the goddam pegs wouldn’t go in further than an inch, it was as if concrete was everywhere. Our only option was to try another area – it was at this point where we no longer looked like pro’s as we did the walk of shame, erected tent in our hands to another field. Luckily the soil was much better here so we could actually peg ourselves down and batton down the hatches for THE windiest night yet. It was so bad that while I was lying down trying to sleep, the inner layer of the tent would completely blow in and wrap itself around my face. The noise of the wind as it grew louder was horrible, even with earplugs in I could hear every gust brewing. It went on all night like this, and it snapped one of our poles, but somehow we were still up and protected, amazingly. Walking around the campground in the morning there were much worse victims than us, with one huge tent completely collapsed except for the porch.
As I’m half Welsh, I really wanted to go to Wales on our way South, so we decided to head to Snowdonia National Park for a couple of days. We pitched up in Llanberis which turned out to be an ideal location for hiking Mount Snowdon, Wales’ highest mountain. We had two choices, fight the crowds and cars to hike up the Pen-y-pass route where you have to pay £10 to park, or start very casually from our campground. Obviously we took the latter option, which went through a lovely green valley and joined onto the snowdon ranger path, from which point it zigzagged up the side of the mountain. The mountain was very wide with a ridge along it and in the middle you could see a wee point, the summit, and as we got closer we could see hundreds of people there too, ah shit! Well it was the Easter weekend and clear blue skies, but it was almost a queue up to the summit. The views from the top however were well worth it, especially down to Llyn Llydaw Lake which almost looked like you were peering through a fisheye lens down to it. Snowdon is so popular that it even has a train go up to the top, and I bet every single person on it looks at all the hikers and says ‘eugh, why an earth would you want to hike up when you could just catch the bloody train’. They also had a café at the top; we are normally haters of things like this, I like places to be kept in their natural state – saying that I sat there with a bottle of cider, dripping with condensation in the sun and admiring the panoramic view around me and I kind of liked the fact that there was a café here.
Our last stop before we went home was a 30minute drive from our campground. We wanted to hike up Tryfan (917m), I only heard about this from a hiking magazine and it said that it was voted the UK’s best mountain hike, Snowdon coming 3rd and Ben Nevis only 8th place. So clearly, I wanted to hike it. The route up was quite gradual and easy till about half way where the path sort of diminished and it became a rocky mountain that involved climbing up rocks. It was so much nicer than the wide path at Snowdon, we actually felt like we were climbing a mountain. It took less than two hours to make it to the top, a wide area with people sitting on rocks admiring the view, and then there were two huge boulders, about 2m high and 1m wide – they were the summit. Rumor has it, that it only counts if you jump from one to the other, but it’s bloody intimidating at the top. I climbed up straight away, well, I managed to put my foot in a small ledge and Craig pushed me up. I very elegantly sprawled myself across the top of the rock and then stood up proudly. Around me were peaks over 1000meters, Tryfan being the smallest but surrounded by some of the highest which I loved. Craig on the other hand had major jelly legs and isn’t great with heights but he did make it up after lunch. The views were pretty spectacular, one side had a complete sheer drop down; from which people were rock climbing up.
The next day we spent 9 hours on the road, stopping off at relative’s houses and finally making it back to Sussex after 7 months away. Now it’s time to get hunting for a campervan for our Europe road trip, and shave my legs before I have to declare myself Yeti’s cousin.