Day 2 – Thursday
We decided to head out of town immediately. We jumped into the car Thursday morning and headed north and west to the coastal town of Ullapool. It was another beautiful day and the landscape was fantastic. The road through Inverness was fast and it didn’t take us long to reach the open spaces of northern Scotland. The sky was overcast but bright and we made a quick stop at the Glascarnoch Dam to stretch our legs. There wasn’t much to look at and we were soon back on the road – where I made my first and last mistake of moving to the right lane when I pulled out of the parking lot. A van coming down the hill in his (and now my) lane honked enthusiastically to let me know of my error. I quickly moved over and waved in apology as we passed.
The road into Ullapool followed Loch Broom for quite some time before we finally spied the whitewashed buildings of Ullapool. Boats huddles along the main dock and smaller boats were moored in a shallow bay. We pulled into town and parked a few blocks away from the waterfront, enjoying the chance to walk through the town and see the back streets. We eventually ended up at the waterfront and I was surprised to see crowds of older tourists wandering in and out of the shops. As we stood there watching, two more tour buses pulled their way into town. We quickly grabbed an open table at an outdoor restaurant and ordered some lunch. We watched the tourists descend on the town and knew that it was time to leave.
We headed north along the coast for a brief time before we left the water behind and found ourselves in the midst of a wide open wilderness. There was nothing to see but heather and hills for miles. At a “T” in the road we headed east into a landscape where farms and ranches covered the rugged hillsides. Another junction took us north through Laird and more sheep-spotted fields.
And then we saw Pete.
I have no idea what Pete’s real name is, but he was a local man harvesting peat by the side of the road. By hand. I was intrigued and parked the car at a wide spot in the road. Dan and I walked back to where he was working under the gray Scottish clouds. Pete was friendly enough and seemed to welcome the break, although I think he would have welcomed a helping hand even more so. He took the time to answer our questions about how the peat is harvested and how long it takes him to harvest enough to heat his daughter’s house in the nearby town of Syre. Pete cut four rows of peat, each row taking about four hours of backbreaking work. Then over a number of days Pete would come back to check on the moisture content of the slabs of peat. There had been quite a bit of rain, so it was drying much slower than usual. Pete combated this by propping up the slabs against each other. Eventually he would load them into his truck and take them to his daughter’s house for her to use as heating. The four rows would heat the house for a full winter. Unfortunately, I lost my notes from the trip on the last day, so I’m working on memory here!
Dan and Pete
Four hours to cut – but not stack – a row like this
After we left Pete we turned east again on to another road that was single track with frequent passing places. It was remote and wild – and a complete surprise when a Harrier jet (?) roared overhead. A few minutes later another roared by so we pulled over to wait for any more. We waited in vain, but it was a beautiful spot to wait.
Waiting for the next jet
Forestry industry is a big thing in Scotland
Not more than ten minutes after we gave up on another fly by Dan spotted this ruin at the side of the road. We decided to check it out up close and parked the car again. The walk to the stone walls was treacherous, with moist boggy ground and tough hillocks to negotiate. And when we finally made it to the old crofter’s house it was full of nettles – nettles that stung right through my jeans! I watched my step after that.
It has been said that northern Scotland resembles the Arctic tundra and having been to both places, I can agree. The vast space that stretched out before me was incredible and endless. Dan was equally impressed and we parked the car in order to better enjoy the experience. Shortly before we stopped I saw a flash of dark brown fly across the road. Considering the size and location, I am sure that it was a Golden Eagle. Even if it wasn’t, I have convinced myself that it was. Naturally, I have no proof to back myself up.
The landscape kept changing. From the wide open tundra, we quickly entered a narrow valley with lush foliage on either side and a river down the middle. Dan had slipped into a nap and didn’t notice the castle on the hill, but I did. I followed the narrow road up the side of the valley until I found the entrance. It was time to stretch our legs and see what was in the neighborhood. It turned out that the castle was a privately-owned hostel and not accessible to us, but the grounds had mountain biking trails marked out. We chose a short trail and meandered around.
Not even the castle entrance!
View back down the valley
The hiking/biking trail wasn’t that good and we took the quickest way back to the car. The area had been recently logged and showed the scars. Because it was a mountain bike trail, it twisted and turned more than one would expect from a hiking trail and it became tedious as we snaked our way over the hills. A German family had just pulled into the parking lot as we pulled out and I mentally wished them more fun than we had, and then we continued up the valley. The landscape opened up again and we were in sheep country. It didn’t seem to matter if there were fences or not, the sheep grazed where they wanted to. At least they weren’t flighty like deer and tended to just sit there and stare as we drove by. Eventually they even moved off the road, too.
Sheep farms of the north
Much to my surprise I saw a herd of Red deer. The smaller Roe deer are more common in Scotland, but the majestic Red deer were an unexpected delight. The fact that they sat at the side of the road and let me take photos was an additional pleasure.
More open spaces
Another peat bog cut
We were finally reaching the end of the wilderness and entering into the outskirts of Helmsdale, an old fishing village on the North Sea coast. Not to say that Helmsdale is a big place, but it was the biggest place we’d seen in the last five hours.
Outside of Helmsdale
The old ice house
Fantastic “Emigrants” statue in Helmsdale
Looking back down the valley we drove through
It was time to head home. We’d been touring Scotland since early that morning and it was still more than a couple of hours to get back to the cottage. We headed south along the coast, the light dying slowly in the west. With summer solstice just around the corner, I knew that there wasn’t any chance that we’d be caught out in the dark. And then we saw the sign for Dunrobin Castle. We decided to stop, since we were so close and still had both light and time.
The Castle officially closed at 4:30 but the grounds and gardens were open for a few more hours after. We took advantage of the empty gardens and prowled around, enjoying the peace and quiet and exquisite landscaping. I’ll let the pictures speak their thousand words…
View from the castle
We had seen what there was to see in the after hours of the castle. We hopped back into the car and headed for the cottage. It had been a long day but we were really impressed with what we had seen so far. Eight more days to go!