Monday 14 September 2020

2020 Scotland: Isle of Skye, Outer Hebrides

8.9.20 Uig

On the ferry, waiting to sail to Tarbert.  Bright day, odd patches of blue.  Yesterday, rainy, as we drove across from Inverness past Loch Ness, then along the A87 through what was impressive if misty scenery, down to Kyle of Lochalsh.  Flew in to Inverness Sunday – easy travel, ironically.  Few people at Gatwick, plane not too full.  Flight short, but then a two-hour wait to pick up our rental car – lots of people hiring cars, so we had to wait for returns.  Madness.

Back in to Inverness, where we last came four years ago.  Small but pleasant city.  We stay in a fairly luxurious apartment, almost with a view of the river.  A good place to relax before beginning our journey to the West.  Drove across "new" Skye bridge – last time I came, 30 odd years ago, I took the short ferry across.  Bridge fairly unexceptionable.  Certainly easy.  Then drove up to Sligachan Hotel for lunch in Seamus' Bar.  I think I may have stayed here all those years ago.   Raining, so not worth walking anywhere.  Up past Portree to our B&B near Uig.   After large lunch, didn't fancy trek down to Portree for dinner, so had supper of nuts, figs and digestives.  Rather good.

Slept well, then to here early to fill up car at nearby petrol station: not many options on Lewis, so best to start with a full tank.  Quite a big ship, 50-60 cars, lorries.  Reasonable price – only £40 for car and two passengers.

Now in Aird Uig, one of the most isolated and extreme points of Scotland/UK/Europe.  From our room in Seacroft B&B we can see the Atlantic.  Straight ahead of us lies thousands of kilometres of nothing.  We arrived in Harris, in Tarbert.  I love ferries, the sense of voyaging out and beyond.  We looked in Tarbert for somewhere to eat.  The only café there is closed, so we buy ham, cheese and bananas at the local store.  Another weird but satisfying meal.  Then out west, along the southern side of Lewis.  The road narrows to a single track, but with multiple passing places.

Stunning views as the road twists and rises and falls.  We head towards a castle, but never get there: the going too slow, and we are heading in the wrong direction for our lodging.  So back to the (only) main road that runs up to the island's capital, Stornoway.  Landscape magnificent, weather holding up, and barely a vehicle on the road except us.  Reminds me strongly of the Lake District, but much grander, and unspoilt.  I doubt I will go to the Lake District again.  

We pass an amazing double sea loch, with a high mountain between – Seaforth Island, I see from the map.  I'm struck as so often by the chasm between the flat, easy, almost featureless topography of maps and the powerful reality packed with geographical incident that they so feebly represent.

The landscape flattens and we turn off left into the heart of Lewis.  Very boggy here, then more rocky outcrops – and no human habitations.  As we approach Uig, we travel down a high-walled valley: reminds me of Darial Gorge.  Indeed, generally the landscape reminds me of Georgia: majestic, barely touched by humans.  Then to Aird Uig, a few houses at the end of the road/world.  As we are early, we go down to the beach.  The huge pebbles are like rounded rocks – hard to walk on.  It's Cornwall without the sand.  The Atlantic brooding magnificently.

Our rooms spacious, the food high quality, if pricey.  Impressively fast Internet provided wirelessly.A good place to use as base for exploration of this fascinating location.  Although I've known of the Outer Hebrides for 50 years, I never thought to visit them – perhaps they seemed too hard to get to.  In fact, the ferries make it relatively easy.

9.9.20 Aird Uig

A day full of sea, rain and wind – which probably counts as a glorious day up here.  First, out to Ardroil beach/Uig sands - where the famous Lewis chessmen were found.  Huge – makes Polzeath look tiddly.  And that's with the tide in.  There were just four of us on the beach – I wonder how full it is during summer high season.  The car park nearby is reasonably large, suggesting quite a few come, but this beach could never be busy.  On one side, a curious collection of large and small rocks – looked very Martian, reds everywhere, plus a few black boulders.  Back across the swaying grasses to the car, a very characteristic machair landscape.  

Then through the amazing Glen Valtos once more, to Valtos itself, taking the scenic road clockwise around the headland.  To Reef beach – very white and weird, with millions of larger shells indicative of the billions of shell fragments that make up the beach: no sand here.  Must be painful to walk on with bare feet.  A few others on the beach, mostly with dogs.  The view across Loch Rog very fine – better than Ardroil beach, which is bigger but the surroundings less impressive.  

To Uig community shop to buy odds and ends for lunch (huge Scottish breakfast meant that more was unnecessary), then out again along Glen Valtos, and down past the long finger of Loch Rog, up to Callanish to see the (main) stone circle.  Different from Stonehenge, but impressive in its own way.  The sharp standing stones all very different – each one a character.  And the extended cruciform nature of the site is intriguing.  What amazed me most was that there are several hundred such circles in Scotland, which is an astonishing thought.  Also, why go to the trouble of building out here on Lewis, the end of the world?  What possessed people thousands of years ago to put so much effort into an endeavour so far from everything?

Back in Aird Uig, we walk up to the headland, past dozens of army digs, many converted into private houses.  Once, there was an RAF radar station up here, and as well as the accommodation, there are also the foundations of other structures connected with the base.  Most weird is a squat green building, derelict, with tiny crenellations along the top of its sides, like some futuristic Knossos.

10.9.20 Port Ness

Sitting in the The Breakwater café, one of the few places open this end of the island, which is bleak, bleak, bleak.  Earlier, drove along "our" road, along the glen, past the stone circles to the broch at Dun Carloway.  Under repair, but an impressive structure nonetheless.  Then on to the blackhouse village at Garenin.  Closed, but we could still walk around it.  Thick thatch held down by rocks tied together, low, squat buildings.  Looked cosy, if rather smokey thanks to the peat fires that burned constantly inside them.  After that, to the big standing stone at Clach an Trushal – 6 metres of rock, vertical.  In the middle of nowhere.  Must have been an effort getting it here.  

A long, desperate drive to here, trying to find something – anything – that would serve us food.  This café has a fantastic location, overlooking the harbour and beach.  Light, and popular by the looks of it.  Afterwards, a quick glance at the port – not a picturesque one, but a rather ugly working one.  Huge concrete walls protecting it from the even higher Atlantic waves.

To the medieval St Moluag's Church, but built on something much older, pagan.  Again: that question – why here?  The church closed, but a bare interior visible through a window.  The external sight is enough: simple but powerful.

Along the road to the Butt of Lewis and its fine lighthouse, unusual in its dark red brickwork.  A charming white-painted house alongside, presumably for the keeper.  Whereas the landscape on the way here was flat, dour and dreary, the cliffs by the lighthouse are splendid – very like Land's End, but a darker-hued rock, with many fragments in the sea, forming a maze of shapes, with the sea surging among them - arguably even more powerful than Cornwall.

11.9.20 Stornoway

The big city, bright lights.  Well, not really.  A couple of streets of shops, a crazy gothic church with a monstrous tower, the place dominated by two ports – the small fishing one, and the larger one for the ferry – why we are here. Weather very blowy – intermittent sun and rain.  Bracing.

Lunch in the cheap and cheerful The Tearoom by the main harbour (and car park).  Pretty minimalist, but ridiculously hard to get in: we had to come back, and even then, were squeezed in on the table of someone coming later on.  Afterwards, to the ferry terminal.  Turns out our ship is much bigger than the one here – far more traffic crossing to Ullapool.  Very smooth journey, even thought the wind was fierce on the streets.  Some dolphins were visible as we drew nearer the mainland.  Scottish highlands emerged from the mists, sun shining intermittently.  Downpours promised for tomorrow…  Then straight out of Ullapool to our hotel, the Dundonell.  

Down Loch Broom, up the hill to Little Loch Broom – strikingly beautiful and unspoilt.  Lots of forestry plantations here, many cut down, looking like the ugly deforestation in Brazil, but without the tropical heat.  Hotel old-fashioned but quaint.  To reach our room, we ascend a long, straight staircase to the third floor – like one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, but in reverse.  It turns out the higher rooms are built along the hillside – interesting.  Everything rather faded – no mixer taps, water brown from the mountain source.  But atmospheric.  And remember: as for houses, the three most important things for hotels are location, location, location.  And this one certainly has it, with fine views to the loch and mountains.

12.9.20 Inverness

In the Best Western Inverness Palace hotel.  Despite its naff name, it is an old, classic, Victorian hotel – built around 1880, with the best views over the river and the rather unimpressive castle.  From Dundonnell hotel we took the slow scenic route via Gairloch.  Great views out to sea.  Best part was along Loch Maree - long and impressive.  Weather alternating sun and squally rain.  Arrived here at 12.30, too early to register, so around the town for lunch.  Inverness is quite strange: a city that is tiny compared to London, but big for Scotland.  Also full of very odd architecture.  One building on the western bank of the River Ness had a pediment supported by two pairs of pilasters – one flat, the other curved – reaching the full height of the building.  Made me think of San Giorgio Maggiore.  Never seen anything like it in a house.  Nice.

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