I arrive at Gatwick, and remembering my earlier vow to never drive in London again, I catch a taxi to The Green Park Hotel in Mayfair, arriving about 7:30 AM. No room is yet available, so my taxi driver takes me on a quick tour of London. We drive ’round St. John’s Wood (disappointing), Notting Hill (adorable), BuckinghamPalace, Regent’s Park (glorious), Hyde Park, and various other points of interest…many of which I have seen before, but love seeing again.
I am dressed in woolly tights and sweater, with a cashmere pullover tied around my waist…and I am melting. It is 80 degrees outside – soon to become even warmer! (Why didn’t I check the weather here before I left!) Everyone is in shorts and sleeveless dresses – except for me. No matter: the sun is shining -it’s glorious weather! London is in the middle of an unprecedented heat wave.
Around 10AM, it’s back to the appealing small hotel located on Half Moon Street (love that name) in Mayfair. The room is still not ready. I enter their (again charming) sitting room and read and wait, read and wait til I think my eyes will fall out – or in. Finally, I stagger to the front desk. “Is there a room – any room – available YET?!” A card key is handed over: “Room 224.” (A note on card keys: why do I have so much trouble with these things? And what is wrong with a key?!)
Calling Judy to let her know I’ve finally arrived, I crash for five-six hours – the minute my head hits the pillow, I am out like the proverbial light, waking up only when I hear the door opening and her “my god…she’s still asleep!”
Out for a quick walk around the little streets, so evocative of London. One small street dead-ends into a couple of pubs or restaurants, and everywhere crowds of young professionals are drinking and enjoying the night air. This heat wave is unprecedented.
Returning to the hotel, we eat dinner, talk a mile a minute, then fall asleep. Initially out like a light again, I wake in the wee hours to the sound of trucks – large and small – zooming down the lane ALL NIGHT- and the crash and tinkle of breaking glass as the recyclers pick up the recycle bins (reminds me of New York). Not a peaceful night.
Up at 9AM, Judy and I call for Room Service, eat a quick breakfast and take a cab to her son’s townhouse – four stories of delightful house in a mews around the corner from Buckingham Palace. It is light and airy (the townhouse, not BuckinghamPalace) and from the top floor can be seen endless views of the chimney pots of London. The kitchen/dining room looks out onto a small walled ivy-covered terrace, and from there across the road to the park – I believe we’ve landed in a chapter of Mary Poppins!
Everyone is delightful and delighted to see us – but we only have time to stay a brief while, pick up a couple of things at the shops, then take a taxi to Gatwick airport -at a cost of one hundred pounds, no kidding! So far, I have spent 200 pounds of the 500 I brought and 160 pounds of it have been taxi fares!
Onward to Invernesse. From brilliant sunshine and weather so balmy we might well be in the Bahamas – to Invernesse: cold, drizzling and misty – very Scottish indeed. We walk along the River Ness (not too far away from the Loch – which, when we asked our – yet another – taxi driver if anyone still sees the Loch Ness Monster, replies: ‘I don’t think it’s a monster, but I think there’s SOMETHING there.’ Eerie!)
Finally, slightly chilled and pretty damp, we end up in our hotel’s pub, quaffing ale and Scotch, and having a nice chat with a couple at the bar who happen to be from Pennsylvania, are photographers, and had just spent two weeks on a very wet and windy Isle of Skye!
Dinner – repacking – and so to bed.
Loch Broom and Ullapool
No sleep, as usual, but I’m sure it’s all related to stress and jet lag. Breakfast of muesli and coffee, and packing in time to meet our group at 10AM. Outside – it is glorious weather! Verrry nice, after the drizzle and drear of Saturday afternoon and night. White clouds scud across a blue, blue sky.
We meet Tom, Bob, Jennifer, Kent and Gail, Roger, Lew and Susan here, and we all climb into the van and drive through beautiful countryside – up hilly, twisted roads – making me a trifle seasick! Bob – one of our guides – pulls over to the side of the road at a “wishing well” where all sorts of pieces of filthy and ragged cloth are tied to trees and stumps. It is traditional to tie or drop a personal item here (I offer a mint) and make a wish. I wish for continuing great weather!
We arrive at the Ceilidh Inn in Ullapool, drop off our luggage, and hike to Loch Broom, entrancing and smelling heavenly. Our hike takes us down to a pebbled rock beach across gorse and heather, through tussocky boggy grass, and finally to the top of a small tor overlooking the loch.
The sun is shining and all is merry and bright. On returning, Roger and I promptly go for a walk up a meandering footpath bordered by blackberry bushes (unripe), fern, celandines, daisies and other small shrubs of varying descriptions…very English (although I wouldn’t say this to a Scot.)
After this short excursion, we wander back to the hotel, in time to prepare for cocktails, and then dinner. Dinner is: cauliflower soup, lentils with mushrooms, and fruit salad – so healthy!
Afterward, Brian gives a brief talk on what to expect on our hikes, and Tom speaks of the early history of the Highlands. Bob, our third guide, has lulled himself to sleep, and is snoring gently in a corner, so we miss his part of the program.
After all this activity, I am ready for bed – but it certainly isn’t ready for me. Sleep I can not – possibly because I am cold and overtired. Naturally I drift off a short while before I am due to get up.
The Bone Caves and the Highlands
By 7:30 AM, we have had breakfast, and are off to the Museum to view a brief film on Scotland. Then it’s on to the hike. The day is not quite as crystal clear – rain is forecast -but the sun is shining so we don’t worry about it. We pick up our picnic sandwiches at the front desk, and are now ready for a full day out in the Highlands of Scotland…
The first stretch takes us up a steep and winding hill to the Bone Caves, where we shelter from the wind and have some refreshment (water). We are told that the oldest inhabitants of Scotland come from here, (at least, their bones were found here.) I think we are in an area called Inchnadampf. After this, most of the group opts to ramble back down the hill at this point, and eat lunch on their way back to the van.
Five of us – all women – choose the “long walk.” This hike is indeed a toughie – challenging and quite grueling. We begin by hiking up an 1100 foot hill – not too high, but since there is no trail, we climb over rabbit holes, heather, tussocky bundles of grass and boggy ground – straight up – and all designed to turn our ankles at the drop of a stick. (This is where really good hiking boots, covering the ankle, are a must, she said knowingly.) We are all breathing quite heavily by the time we reach the top – but more to come!
The top of this mountain leads to yet another, and up and up we go. Finally, atop a crest surrounded by the spectacular views of mountains and gorges – we sit for lunch.
We are hot to begin with, but the wind is blowing and the sun begins sailing in and out of clouds; and pretty soon it is really cold. Quickly finishing our lunch and taking a private moment, we are soon back on our merry way over the mountains.
The trail-less ground becomes more and more treacherous – as well as boggier and boggier. Streams cross our path, across which we leap from stone to stone, or boulder to boulder, or inch across tiny wooden bridges – all slippery and wobbly. All in all, challenging! (Note here: there are no trees in the Highlands…at least, not anywhere we are….but lots of ferns and scrub.) By the time we find the downward trail, we have been hiking for about 6-1/2 hours – approximately 10 miles.
The sun comes and goes – at one point, it begins raining – I am hot – take off jacket – I am wet – put on raincoat – rain stops – I get hot – take off raincoat – rain pelts down – ram on raincoat!
We finally get to the van and pile in. Tom, our guide, drives us to a beautiful little ruin of a castle on the way back to Ullapool, where we disembark to take photographs.
Susan, Jennifer, Tom and I ramble over to the castle -again, hopscotching across two streams to get to the island on which it sits. The grass surrounding it has been cropped over time by sheep, and is like green velvet – the sky began clearing to a deep cerulean blue, and all is quiet and peaceful. Beautiful. One of many perfect moments.
Then back in the van, and back to the Inn – dinner- hot water bottle – and bed!
On the go at 9AM – another beautiful day begins as we pile into our respective vans for the hour or so trip to Loch Torridon Country House Hotel – an enchanting hunting lodge-turned-hotel. It is like something from a Sir Walter Scott novel. I instantly fall in love.
Today we have the option of a short or a long walk, and several of us opt for the long. It starts gently enough as we begin our climb over endless hills and dales – although I do manage to fall in the first major stream I come to, slipping on one of those dratted boulders!
After a couple of hours or so, we come to a “bothy” – a small empty hut in the middle of the hills where we unload our gear and have lunch. It is charming. The sun is shining – and though it is cool, the air is as clear and fresh, and we have plenty of time for pictures.
After the “bothy,” we must decide whether to continue or turn back. Several of us decide to continue. What a hike: we seem to be taking part in a marathon! After hiking miles across mountains, we circle back. Here Tom says: the track from here is straightforward, so meander all you want…
Ha! I am the only one who “meanders” – and find myself surrounded by panoramic hills with no-one in sight and several tracks to choose from! I have a moment of extreme panic, until, finally, the top of Tom’s head emerges like the sun over the horizon, and I jog-trot to catch up.
From here it is downhill. We hit the trail, which is totally rocky and stony – galloping at a pace that seems destined to turn one’s ankle – are we trying to catch a train?! No time for scenic views – all we can do is watch our feet. I am exhausted when we roll in around 5 o’clock.
A shower, a moment’s rest, and then we are in to dinner.
This is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful hotel! I’m sharing a room with Judy, and it is large and well-appointed, comfortable and elegant. The bathroom is huge and we can look from its windows out onto immaculate green lawns edged with colorful flowers, on into the paddock where the cows are grazing.
Outdoors is even more spectacular. Besides the sculptured grounds, all is green…green, green grass, surrounded by woods, mountains, and the silvery-gray, entrancing loch. Loch Torridon is a beautiful, enchanting place – my favorite of the trip.
Loch Torridon and a Gentle Walk
Wake up, get outta bed, drag a comb across my head…zooming around as usual, in to breakfast – I love my breakfast! Mueslix, scrambled eggs and bacon – the usual stuff but tastes great and is needed for energy.
Again, we have the option: long or short walk. This time, I choose the short. What the heck…do I think I’m Tenzing Norgay here?
Hoisting up our backpacks, we pick up our picnic lunch, and are off. Susan and Jennifer take the long walk with Brian and Bob. The rest of us opt for the lower ground.
The sky is blue, the air is crisp. Our walk begins up a winding footpath through glorious woods, to open stretches of boggy fields in which sheep and cows graze or placidly sleep. Pheasants run through the underbrush – it is absolutely idyllic, one of our most beautiful and peaceful days.
After stopping for a drink and snack, several of us walk on for a mile or so, coming to an old stone bridge crossing a gurgling stream, eating our picnic lunch in the shade of the willow trees (and it is really nice to see trees). The sky is the bluest it has been since arriving in Scotland. Not a sound breaks the stillness, except for the song of the brook. Heaven.
This is one of the amazing things in this land: the absolute silence of the Highlands, but for the water. It’s completely satisfying. No birds sing – there seem to be few or no birds (they must be somewhere around!). But the sound of rushing water is everywhere… wherever you turn are waterfalls, lochs and streams or seas – gushing, gurgling, roaring, rushing, babbling or splashing – a country seemingly circumscribed by water.
We walk back over gently rolling paths, through green woods scented with pine to our hotel (approximately seven miles round trip.)
Susan, Jennifer, Brian and Bob, who’d taken the optional hike, finally make it back around six that evening. Their walk sounds intense – 15 miles up and around a mountain, often plunging into boggy swamp to their knees, descending down sheer granite on the other side, according to Susan. The winds were so tempestuous, they needed to grip the cliff face to avoid being blown off the ledge. Part of the trip down is spent on all fours! They found it all exhilarating! I would’ve liked to say I did it, but I didn’t – and the “short walk” was so lovely, I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
The Isle of Skye and the Lighthouse
We are up and packed by 9AM, have a quick breakfast and are into the van heading for the storied Isle of Skye. The drive is so quiet and peaceful… gloriously beautiful … I love the Highlands.
Two hours later, we pile out of the vans in Kyle of Lockalsh for our only real shopping opportunity, which was great fun…then we drive over the bridge to Skye, paying an enormous toll to do so. I asked about but could not get “speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing…”
Our small, charming Inn on Skye is delightful (what else is new?!) Our tiny room has Laura Ashley pink and green chintz hangings, and a big burl wardrobe holds our clothes. All the tea things are here.
Dropping off our luggage, we are driven to the base of the cliff to begin our hike. The weather has changed drastically – it is grey and raining steadily. Raingear is hurriedly pulled from backpacks, and we hike through the driving rain to the sea. Here’s how it went.
First, up a very stony and rocky trail, up and up…then down a steep, steep bank through sludge and over slippery rock, then down the hillside where we slither and slip over rocks and heather. We make our way through many streams to boulders and small cliffs down which we clamber to the waiting shore.
It is still raining steadily, and it is cold. Nonetheless, Jennifer, Brian, Tom and Bob don bathing suits and plunge into the grey sea for a swim! Jennifer wants to “swim with the seals,” which are cavorting and diving a safe distance from these crazy people who keep trying to take their picture.
To the Lighthouse
Then again comes the option: continue to the lighthouse or turn back. The sane amongst us choose to turn back. I was one of the few who opt to go on! By this time, I – and everyone else – am soaked to the skin. We clamber over some of the most treacherous countryside imaginable – down slippery rain-soaked rocks, slimy with lichen – plunging into boggy grass – going down, ever down – and finally coming to a green grassy sward and promontory – at the end of which is – the lighthouse! What an adventure. Challenging, but exhilarating at the same time!
The lighthouse overlooks a grey and stormy sea … we are at the end of the world. The sky is grey, the grass green, the lighthouse, white. The seagulls (finally, birds!)are an eerie note, rimming the lighthouse and the rocks below and cawing non-stop. Photographs are taken through soft mist.
After which, it starts raining steadily and strongly. We take a different course back to the van, scrambling up through rocky watercourses, again plunging into mud and mire, slipping down and up rain-slick rocks and boulders…unbelievable.
Three hours later we arrive at the van. I am completely soaked. My boots have sunk ankle deep into the mud; my backpack – and all in it, including my money and passport – ditto. My pants are hanging from my body like clown pants; my hair is in rattails. The joy of the hike!
Back at the hotel, Judy corroborates this statement, also mentioning a drowned rat. She makes me a cup of hot tea, and draws a hot bath – bliss!!
Then I dry off, have dinner, and get back fairly early to bed. Really tired tonight – no problem sleeping at all.
One tiny little glitch in this lovely place: hot water is NOT in abundance. Apparently, in getting a deep, hot bath, and washing my hair…I used up almost all the hot water on our side of the Inn! I never told anyone, but one of the other hikers mentioned having to bathe in icy water…couldn’t understand why there was no hot! I kept mum on the subject.
The isle of Skye and the Back of Beyond
This is our last full day on the Isle of Skye. We arise as usual at 7AM, eat a good breakfast and pile in the vans for an hour’s ride to the boat we are to take to an uninhabited part of Skye.
Susan, Linda, Jennifer and I share the van with Brian and Tom – lots of room, and it is nice to be able to stretch out. About halfway to the boat – down narrow roads and high lanes banded by greenery starred with flowers – we are halted by a road paving crew blocking the path (a not infrequent occurrence). We take the opportunity to get out and hike to the boat, about half an hour’s walk. The weather by this time has turned crisp and sunny again, and the walk and the views are wonderful.
Eventually our guides are able to drive the vans through the roadblock and catch up with us. We all pile onto the ferry, where we immediately don our raingear as it has become chilly and damp over the grey, icy water. The ferry is large and carries a full load of people; it takes quite a while to reach the other side as we are taken to look at the seals resting on the rocky outcrops in the water. It is fascinating to see them – they respond with what seems to be equal fascination (although I doubt that).
On arrival, we hike up the mountainside. The weather has grown even chillier and more overcast – and the wind is whistling around our ears. We end up on a flat granite rock atop a hillside -our hoods up, raingear tied up to the chin. Here we picnic, on what feels like the edge of the world. Although cold, misty, windy and wild – you can’t help but be exhilarated…
Everyone is taking photographs, but despite the back-of-beyond feeling, we do not linger long. Another option of a long or short walk is offered on the way back to the ferry. A couple of us actually think it over, but in the end, common sense prevails and we all opt to return to the boat, in the hopes of maybe getting in a little shopping – sounding more appealing by the minute!
We dock about 3:30PM, but again are stymied by the same road-paving-crew when we attempt to drive back. After a 45 minute wait, during which we try to complete a crossword in a Scottish newspaper (we are unable to understand a single clue – the puzzle is totally cryptic) we are finally on the move.
By the time we get to the first tiny town with a few shops, it is closing time. However, Susan manages to purchase a handknit sweater which is so thick, it can stand alone. It is very pleasant to ramble around for a bit, just looking and shopping and taking in the sights and talking to people who live and work here.
By the end of this day, we are all extremely tired. After dinner, all gather in the chintz-splashed parlor in front of a roaring fire, to listen to Annie, a local Gaelic singer. The plaintive and poignant melodies and words of the folk songs underscore the melancholy beauty of Skye.
The romantic, legendary Isle of Skye has always been a dream journey. The legend of Prince Charlie, sailing over the sea to Skye, is an old folk song that was sung by my mother when I was very young. I’ve never forgotten it.
Skye fulfills all expectations. It is so very, very green and unspoiled, and relatively uninhabited. Tiny white houses dot the landscape. Sheep are everywhere, rambling across hills and roads, unfenced and free. Our small inn is right on the water, and is so charming, vines and roses clambering across walls and doors. We are surrounded by the loch on one side, mountains and hills and quiet land on other sides. It is isolated and remote – and mystical.
The Highlands are the same. They are green (or black, depending on which mountains you’re looking at), desolate, forbidding, ancient and timeless. No-one seems to live in the Highlands. The only sound you hear is that of water – waterfalls, streams, rills and lochs are everywhere – the rush and gurgle and song of water never stops. And all that you see are the endless peaks and valleys with hardly a tree in sight. In the Highlands on a beautiful day, you are totally at one with nature; it is a spiritual experience to be alone here.
If the weather turns bad, however, the desolation and isolation become omnipresent. It often seems you are either born in the Highlands and they are in your blood; or you cannot live there for long and survive. And if you’re of the city, then eventually the silence and isolation can become overwhelming. Those are my thoughts, anyway!
Susan and I had planned the night before to get up at the crack of dawn and go for an hour’s walk before we are due to leave Skye. At 6:30 AM I crawl out of bed, get dressed and meet her outside. It is a lovely morning – hard to believe, as the worst gale to hit Scotland in 30 years is forecast! We walk down the quiet country lanes, enjoying the peace and circling the Inn- an altogether enjoyable ramble, getting back in time for a quick breakfast and then it’s into the vans.
A short detour to a castle ruin high on a hill, and we’re scrambling over tussocky grass and pebbly streams and up a short rise to a very, very narrow ledge – where we each cling to the stones and edge slowly across – or fall to boulders below! Once atop this hill, Brian reads us some tales of Scotland, and has us act them out. For some reason, we also line up in a row, each of us sitting on the knees of the person behind us, pretending to be rowing a Viking ship – don’t ask me why!
Then we inch back across the ledge – and drive to the most famous castle in Scotland for a brief tour – the Eileen Donnan. Its walls are 14 feet thick, and it was first built in the twelfth or thirteenth century, but burned in the 1700s. It was fully restored between 1912-1932. History emanates from the walls.
And then it is on to Invernesse, London and back to reality. The Highlands of Scotland –a little uncanny, magical, poignant – but not for the faint of heart.