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Scotland Aye – hiking the Highlands and Islands

I arrived at Gatwick, and remembering my earlier vow to never drive in London again, caught a taxi to The Green Park Hotel in Mayfair, arriving about 7:30 AM. No room was available, so my taxi driver took me on a quick tour of London. We drove ’round St. John’s Wood (disappointing), Notting Hill (adorable), Buckingham Palace, Regent’s Park (glorious), Hyde Park, and various other points of interest…many of which I have seen before, but loved seeing again.

I dressed in woolly tights and sweater, with a cashmere pullover tied around my waist…and I was melting. It was 80 degrees outside – soon to become even warmer! (Why didn’t I check the weather here before I left!) Everyone was in shorts and sleeveless dresses – except for me. No matter: the sun shone -it was glorious weather! London was 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 was still not ready. I entered their (again charming) sitting room and read and waited, read and waited til I thought my eyes would fall out – or in. Finally, I staggered 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?! But I’ve gotten over that!)

London townhouses

Calling Judy to let her know I’d finally arrived, I crashed for five-six hours – the minute my head hit the pillow, I was out like the proverbial light, waking up only when I heard 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-ended into a couple of pubs or restaurants, and everywhere crowds of young professionals were drinking and enjoying the night air. This heat wave is unprecedented.

Returning to the hotel, we ate dinner, talked a mile a minute, then fell asleep. Initially out like a light again, I woke 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 picked up the recycle bins (reminded me of New York). Not a peaceful night.

Invernesse

Up at 9AM, Judy and I called Room Service, ate a quick breakfast and took a cab to her son’s townhouse – four stories of delightful house in a mews around the corner from Buckingham Palace. It was light and airy (the townhouse, not Buckingham Palace) and from the top floor could be seen endless views of the chimney pots of London. The kitchen/dining room looked out onto a small walled ivy-covered terrace, and from there across the road to the park – I believe we landed in a chapter of Mary Poppins!

Everyone was delightful and delighted to see us – but we only had 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!

The River Ness in Invernesse

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 walked along the River Ness (not too far away from the Loch – which, when we asked – yet another – taxi driver if anyone still sees the Loch Ness Monster, he replied: ‘I don’t think it’s a monster, but I think there’s SOMETHING there.’ Eerie!)

A street in Invernesse alongside the River Ness

Finally, slightly chilled and pretty damp, we ended 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 was glorious weather! Verrry nice, after the drizzle and drear of Saturday afternoon and night. White clouds scudded across a blue, blue sky.

We met Tom, Bob, Jennifer, Kent and Gail, Roger, Lew and Susan here, and we all climbed into the van and drove through beautiful countryside – up hilly, twisted roads – making me a trifle seasick! Bob – one of our guides – pulled over to the side of the road at a “wishing well” where all sorts of pieces of filthy and ragged cloth were tied to trees and stumps. It is traditional to tie or drop a personal item here (I offered a mint) and make a wish. I wished for continuing great weather!

The Ceilidh Inn in Ullapool

We arrived at the Ceilidh Inn in Ullapool, dropped off our luggage, and hiked to Loch Broom, entrancing and smelling heavenly. Our hike took 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.

Hiking around Loch Broom

The sun was shining and all was merry and bright. On returning, Roger and I promptly went 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.)

Our first hike in Ullapool countryside

After this short excursion, we wandered back to the hotel, in time to prepare for cocktails, and then dinner. Dinner was: cauliflower soup, lentils with mushrooms, and fruit salad – so healthy!

Afterward, Brian gave a brief talk on what to expect on our hikes, and Tom spoke of the early history of the Highlands. Bob, our third guide, had lulled himself to sleep, and was snoring gently in a corner, so we missed his part of the program.

After all this activity, I was so ready for bed – but it certainly wasn’t ready for me. What on earth was wrong!? Sleep I could not – possibly because I am cold and overtired. Naturally I drifted off a short while before I was due to get up.

The Bone Caves and the Highlands

By 7:30 AM, we had breakfast, and were off to the Museum to view a brief film on Scotland. Then it was on to the hike. The day was not quite as crystal clear – rain was forecast -but the sun was shining so we didn’t worry about it. We picked up our picnic sandwiches at the front desk, and were now ready for a full day out in the Highlands of Scotland…

Our group at the Bone Caves

The first stretch took us up a steep and winding hill to the Bone Caves, where we sheltered from the wind and had some refreshment (water). We were told that the oldest inhabitants of Scotland come from here, (at least, their bones were found here.) I think we were in an area called Inchnadampf. After this, most of the group opted to ramble back down the hill at this point, and eat lunch on their way back to the van.

Some of the best, freshest and chilliest water in the world

Five of us – all women – chose the “long walk,” challenging and quite grueling. We began by hiking up an 1100 foot hill – not too high, but since there was no trail, we climbed over rabbit holes, heather, tussocky bundles of grass and boggy ground – straight up – 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 were all breathing quite heavily by the time we reached the top – but more to come!

The top of this mountain led to yet another mountain, and up and up we went. Finally, atop a crest surrounded by the spectacular views of mountains and gorges – we sat for lunch.

We were hot to begin with, but the wind was blowing and the sun began sailing in and out of clouds; and pretty soon it was really cold. Quickly finishing our lunch and taking a private moment, we were soon back on our merry way over the mountains.

One of many streams throughout the Highlands

The trail-less ground became more and more treacherous – as well as boggier and boggier. Streams crossed our path, across which we leapt from stone to stone, or boulder to boulder, or we inched 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 were….but lots of ferns and scrub.) By the time we found the downward trail, we had been hiking for about 6-1/2 hours – approximately 10 miles.

The sun comes and goes – at one point, it begins raining – hot – took off jacket – wet – put on raincoat – rain stopped – hot – took off raincoat – rain pelted down – rammed on raincoat!

An enchanting castle ruin at the end of the day’s hike

We reached the van and piled in. Tom, our guide, drove us to a beautiful little ruin of a castle on the way back to Ullapool, where we disembarked to take photographs.

The castle ruin – an enchanted spot

Susan, Jennifer, Tom and I rambled over to the castle -again, hopscotching across two streams to get to the island on which it sat. The grass surrounding it had been cropped over time by sheep, and wass like green velvet – the sky began clearing to a deep cerulean blue, and all was quiet and peaceful. Beautiful. One of many perfect moments.

Rambling around this beautiful tiny castle ruin

Then back in the van, and back to the Inn – dinner- hot water bottle – and bed!

Loch Torridon

Loch Torridon Country House Hotel

On the go at 9AM – another beautiful day began as we piled into our respective vans for the hour or so trip to Loch Torridon Country House Hotel – an enchanting hunting lodge-turned-hotel. It was like something from a Sir Walter Scott novel. I instantly fell in love (that happens a lot!).

Today we had the option of a short or a long walk, so several of us opted for the long. It started gently enough as we began our climb over endless hills and dales – although I did manage to fall in the first major stream I came to, slipping on one of those dratted boulders!

The bothy

After a couple of hours or so, we arrived at a “bothy” – a small empty hut in the middle of the hills where we unloaded our gear and had lunch. It was charming. The sun was shining – and though it was cool, the air was so clear and fresh, and we had plenty of time for pictures.

Rosemary, Judy, Gail and Kent in front of the bothy

After the “bothy,” we must decide whether to continue or turn back. Several of us decided to continue. What a hike: we seem to be taking part in a marathon! After hiking miles across mountains, we circled back. Here Tom said: The track from here is straightforward, so meander all you want…

Ha! I was the only one who “meandered” – and found myself suddenly surrounded by panoramic hills with no-one in sight and several tracks to choose from! I had a moment of extreme panic, until, finally, the top of Tom’s head emerges like the sun over the horizon, and I jog-trotted thankfully towards him to catch up.

From here it was downhill. We hit the trail, which was totally rocky and stony – galloping at a pace that seemed destined to turn one’s ankle – were we trying to catch a train?! No time for scenic views – all we could do is watch our feet. I was exhausted when we rolled in around 5 o’clock.

A shower, a moment’s rest, and then we were in to dinner.

This is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful hotel! I shared a room with Judy, and it was large and well-appointed, comfortable and elegant. The bathroom was huge and we could look from its windows out onto immaculate green lawns edged with colorful flowers, on into the paddock where the cows were grazing.

Loch Torridon cattle graze in the hotel’s paddock

Outdoors was even more spectacular. Besides the sculptured grounds, all was green…green, green grass, surrounded by woods, mountains, and the silvery-gray, entrancing loch. Loch Torridon was – and no doubt still is – a beautiful, enchanting place – my favorite of the trip.

Loch Torridon and a Gentle Walk

The “back yard” – Loch Torridon Hotel

Wake up, got outta bed, dragged a comb across my head…zooming around as usual, in to breakfast – I loved my breakfast! Mueslix, scrambled eggs and bacon – the usual stuff but tasted great and needed for energy.

Again, we had the option: long or short walk. This time, I opted for the short. What the heck…do I think I’m Tenzing Norgay here?

On our short walk

Hoisting up our backpacks, we picked up our picnic lunch, and were off. Susan and Jennifer took the long walk with Brian and Bob. The rest of us went for the lower ground.

The sky was blue, the air was crisp. Our walk began up a winding footpath through glorious woods, to open stretches of boggy fields in which sheep and cows grazed or placidly slept. Pheasants ran through the underbrush – it was absolutely idyllic, one of our most beautiful and peaceful days.

A brief break on the short walk

After stopping for a drink and snack, several of us walked on for a mile or so, coming to an old stone bridge crossing a gurgling stream, where we ate our picnic lunch in the shade of the willow trees (and it was really nice to see trees). The sky was the bluest it had been since arriving in Scotland. Not a sound broke the stillness, except for the song of the brook. Heaven.

Lunch break

This was one of the amazing things in this land: The absolute silence of the Highlands, but for the water. It’s completely satisfying. No birds sang – there seemed to be few or no birds (they must be somewhere around!). But the sound of rushing water was everywhere… wherever you turned were waterfalls, lochs and streams or seas – gushing, gurgling, roaring, rushing, babbling or splashing – a country seemingly circumscribed by water.

Here a cow, there a cow…

We walked back over gently rolling paths, through green woods scented with pine to our hotel (approximately seven miles round trip.)

The grounds of Loch Torridon Hotel – I never wanted to leave

Susan, Jennifer, Brian and Bob, who’d taken the optional heavy duty hike, finally made it back around six that evening. Their walk sounded 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 was 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, had a quick breakfast and were into the van heading for the storied Isle of Skye. The drive was so quiet and peaceful… gloriously beautiful … I love the Highlands.

Two hours later, we piled out of the vans in Kyle of Lockalsh for our only real shopping opportunity, which was great fun…then we drove 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 inn on the Isle of Skye

Our small, charming Inn on Skye was delightful (what else is new?!) Our tiny room had Laura Ashley pink and green chintz hangings, and a big burl wardrobe held our clothes. All the tea things were here.

Beginning our first hike on Skye

Dropping off our luggage, we were driven to the base of the cliff to begin our hike. The weather had changed drastically – it was grey and raining steadily. Raingear was hurriedly pulled from backpacks, and we hiked through the driving rain to the sea. Here’s how it went.

Hiking on the Isle of Skye

First, up a very stony and rocky trail, up and up…then down a steep, steep bank through bogs and over slippery lichened rock, then down the hillside where we slithered and slipped over rocks and heather. We made our way through many streams to boulders and small cliffs down which we clambered to the waiting shore.

Swimming with the seals

It was still raining steadily, and it was cold. Nonetheless, Jennifer, Brian, Tom and Bob donned bathing suits and plunged into the grey sea for a swim! Jennifer wanted to “swim with the seals,” which were cavorting and diving a safe distance from these crazy people who kept trying to take their picture.

To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse

Then again comes the option: Continue to the lighthouse or turn back. The sane amongst us chose to turn back. I was one of the few who opted to go on! By this time, I – and everyone else – was soaked to the skin. We clambered 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 was – the lighthouse! Hello, Virginia Woolfe! What an adventure. Challenging, but exhilarating at the same time!

The lighthouse overlooked a grey and stormy sea … we were at the end of the world. The sky was grey, the grass green, the lighthouse, white. The seagulls (finally, birds!) were an eerie note, rimming the lighthouse and the rocks below and cawing non-stop. Photographs were taken through soft  mist.

Are we happy yet? Yes!

After which, it started raining steadily and strongly. We took a different route 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 arrived at the van. I was completely drenched. My boots had sunk ankle deep into the mud; my backpack – and all in it, including my money and passport – ditto. My pants were hanging from my body like clown pants; my hair was in rattails. The joy of the hike!

Back at the hotel, Judy corroborated this statement, also mentioning a drowned rat. She made me a cup of hot tea, and drew a hot bath – bliss!!

Then I dried off, had dinner, and got back fairly early to bed. Really tired tonight – no problem sleeping at all.

One tiny little glitch in this lovely place: hot water was 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! Bad girl!! 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 was our last full day on the Isle of Skye. We arose as usual at 7AM, ate a good breakfast and piled in the vans for an hour’s ride to the boat we were to take to an uninhabited part of Skye.

On the road to the ferry, Isle of Skye

Susan, Linda, Jennifer and I shared the van with Brian and Tom – lots of room, and it was 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 were halted by a road paving crew blocking the path (a not infrequent occurrence). We took the opportunity to get out and hike to the boat, about half an hour’s walk. The weather by this time had turned crisp and sunny again, and the walk and the views were wonderful.

A windy, blustery day, as we walk to the ferry

Eventually our guides were able to drive the vans through the roadblock and catch up with us. We all piled onto the ferry, where we immediately donned our raingear as it had become chilly and damp over the grey, icy water. The ferry was large and carried a full load of people; it tool quite a while to reach the other side as we were 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).

The start of the hike

On arrival, we hiked up the mountainside. The weather had grown even chillier and more overcast – and the wind was whistling and howling around our ears. We ended up on a flat granite rock atop a hillside -our hoods up, raingear tied up to the chin. Here we picnicked, on what felt like the edge of the world. Although cold, misty, windy and wild – you can’t help but be exhilarated…

A quick break for lunch on the final Skye hike

Everyone was taking photographs, but despite the back-of-beyond feeling, we did not linger long. Another long or short walk was offered on the way back to the ferry. A couple of us actually thought it over, but in the end, common sense prevailed and we all opted to return to the boat, in the hopes of maybe getting in a little shopping – sounding more appealing by the minute!

Susan points the way – unfortunately the wrong way!

The ferry docked about 3:30PM, but again we are stymied by the same road-paving-crew when we attempted to drive back. After a 45 minute wait, during which we tried to complete a crossword in a Scottish newspaper (we were unable to understand a single clue – the puzzle was totally cryptic) we were finally on the move.

By the time we got to the first tiny town with a few shops, it was closing time. However, Susan managed to purchase a handknit sweater which is so thick, it could stand alone. It was very pleasant to ramble around for a bit, just looking and shopping and taking in the sights and talking to people who lived and worked here.

Scottish Bob, one of our terrific guides

By the end of this day, we were all pretty worn out. After dinner, all gathered 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 underscored the melancholy beauty of  the place.

The romantic, legendary Isle of Skye had always been a dream journey. Bonnie 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 fulfilled all expectations. It was so very, very green and unspoiled, and relatively uninhabited. Tiny white houses dotted the landscape. Sheep were everywhere, rambling across hills and roads, unfenced and free. Our small inn was right on the water, and was so charming, with vines and roses clambering across walls and doors. We were surrounded by the loch on one side, mountains and hills and quiet land on other sides. It was isolated and remote – and mystical.

The Highlands were the same. They were 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 heard 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 saw were the endless peaks and valleys with hardly a tree in sight. In the Highlands on a beautiful day, you were totally at one with nature; it was a spiritual experience to be alone here.

Hiking the Highlands

If the weather turned bad, however, the desolation and isolation become omnipresent. It often seemed you were either born in the Highlands and they were 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 were my thoughts, anyway!

Eileen Donnan

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 crawled out of bed (well, okay, that’s the crack of dawn to me!), got dressed and met her outside my cottage. It was a lovely morning – hard to believe, as the worst gale to hit Scotland in 30 years was forecast! We walked 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 was into the vans.

A short detour to a castle ruin high on a hill, and we were scrambling over tussocky grass and pebbly streams and up a short rise to a very, very narrow ledge – where we each clung to the stones and edged slowly across – or fell to boulders below! Once atop this hill, Brian read us some tales of Scotland, and had us act them out. For some reason, we also lined 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 inched back across the ledge – and drove 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. It is history.

And then it was on to Invernesse, then London and back to reality. The Highlands of Scotland –a little uncanny, magical, poignant – but not for the faint of heart. But oh, what a wonderful hike!