Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Day 23 - Scotland West Coast - Scourie - Loch land supreme...

As I got closer to Scourie, the earth started flirting with me...and then it became something of a serious relationship. I've gone on before about how beautiful Scotland is, but it does seem that the further north you go, the better it becomes. So don't fall in love down south...you'll find true romance up north.

Here are some pics I took...they don't do the land much justice, so make sure you get to see for yourself this "forgotten corner of Scotland", as Richard Flannery of Eddrachilles Hotel likes to say proudly. I stayed at his fantastic hotel near Scourie...it is a real find. And perhaps one of the best values of my trip so far. Rates at £48 are very reasonable, considering the remote area, the standard of the service and rooms, as well as the superb food, cooked by Isabelle, Richard's French wife. I can't recommend Eddrachilles too highly. Get here. One of my nicest stays so far.

View of Ardvreck Castle...click to enlarge. This castle was built in the 15th Century by the MacLeods of Assynt (the name of the area). Some say that it's haunted...during the siege of the castle by the MacKenzies, the daughter of the MacLeod chief promised to marry the devil if he spared her father from the MacKenzie warriors. She then drowned herself in the loch once she realised the implications...

And another one of Ardvreck...click to enlarge

Another view on route to Scourie from Torridon...click to enlarge

And another...click to enlarge

And one more...click to enlarge

Day 23 - Scotland West Coast - Scourie - Make your own illicit whisky, bathing admirals and finding dolphins

I’ve been tempted by the tours at the established whisky distilleries, but for some reason I haven’t done one. Maybe it’s because I’ve always thought of whisky being made in the middle of nowhere, on the outer mudflats of the outer isles, by grumpy old Scotsmen whose accents are indiscernible. For the big brand whiskies, there are pamphlets galore in all the tourist centres, and here's a good website for twelve of the best-known.

So when I drove into the slightly delapidated village of Drumchork, and saw the humble sign pointing to Loch Ewe Distillery, partly hidden by some brush, I thought..."perfect!" And it turned out to be one of my top random experiences of the trip so far – and owner Johnny Clotworthy one of the best characters I’ve met.

Johnny used to be in the fire brigade, and his wife a property developer. They wanted to do something different, so they bought an hold hotel with a big garage and started making whisky, illicitly. Seriously. Well, not illegally, but Johnny makes whisky in the old-age tradition, when whisky was prohibited, more than 200 years ago.

He uses small stills and casks, and simple distillation techniques. All housed in an old garage. But if you're thinking that the bigger, flashier distilleries are making better whisky...then think again. Because Johnny's been on the judge's panel for Whisky Magazine, and in 2004 he was voted by the Scottish Licence Trade Association as Whisky Ambassador for the UK...which makes him the most knowledgeable whisky lover on the island which invented whisky.

And his adjacent hotel, which he runs with his wife Frances, was voted Whisky Hotel of the Year in 2001 and in 2006. They stock hundreds of different whiskies.

Best of all, though, for people who love whisky: Johnny runs a course where you can learn to make whisky yourself, under his expert guidance. Sign up here! As Johnny says of the course: "If you’re not Scottish by birth by the end of this experience you will certainly be Scottish at heart!"

"Scotland Forever" reads one of Johnny Clotworthy's tatoos on his arm. He is the UK's top whisky expert, recently voted Whisky Ambassador for the UK.

Loch Ewe Distillery near Drumchork...

After sipping on a few whisky samples with Johnny, I drove on to Scourie, one of the classic highland routes. Because of the rain yesterday I missed some great scenery, but today the sun was breaking through the clouds, and it revealed a smorgasbord of photogenic opportunities - landscape and people.

I drove past Kathy and her friend "Addy" (stands for Admiral). She was walking her bull alongside the road, taking him for a bath - both of them happier than ever.

Kathy taking "Addy" for a bath...

Another nice surprise was the Gairloch Marine Wildlife Centre and Cruises...they were fully booked, so I couldn't get onto one of their boats for a wildlife tour. But owner Sam French was super friendly, and they have a great visitor centre, with great views (they are presently building a look-out deck). Sam's husband is the guide as well as a qualified marine biologist, and is consistently involved in cetacean research around Gairloch. On the cruises you could see dolphins, whales, porpoises, basking sharks, seals and most seabirds - if you're lucky, hopefully a white-tailed or golden eagle.

Pic courtesy of Gairloch Marine Wildlife Cruises

Day 22 - Scotland West Coast - Torridon - Outdoor heaven

I stayed at The Torridon Inn, which is grouped with the more luxurious The Torridon, a very-high-end manor house with commensurate prices.

The Inn, though, is nice and low key, with functional, clean rooms, and the service and food are great – it was the AA Pub of the Year for 2008. The scenery is the star, though. It overlooks Loch Torridon, and across the water is the small hamlet of the same name. And everything is dwarfed by the mountain of Liathach, at over 1000 metres...which isn’t any higher than other mountains around here, except the highest point isn’t more than a few hundred metres from the loch’s water level. The gradient is impressive.

Loch Torridon...The Torridon Inn and Hotel gaze across this body of water...click image to enlarge.

Torridon’s Chris Wilson woke me up at 4am in the morning, and took my kayaking on the loch. No wind, orange sunrise, still water, looming mountains across the loch...it was worth the early rise. Soon the wind picked up though, and clouds drifted over. The weather can change very quickly, Chris explained. There is no protection between Torridon and the Atlantic. And the wind funnels through the mountains...it’s the start of the wild north of Scotland, which culminates at Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point on mainland Britain.

Scotland seems to pride itself on adventure activities, and it’s a good call. Compared to the English coast, and parts of the Welsh coast, Scotland’s lochs and hills are practically unexplored. And the sheep and cows can’t get onto the steep slopes (most of the time) – something which will please true wilderness lovers. No matter how much I loved Wales, for instance, there always seemed to be a dry-stone wall half way up the mountain, or a farm field where there should have been indigenous flora.

In Scotland, there’s a bigger sense of the wild. And it makes mountain-biking, kayaking, walking and climbing that much more special. Just knowing that you can set off for a whole day on your mountain bike, and not see anyone else, is a powerful currency in the UK, where 50 million people inhabit England to the south. In Scotland, there are only 5 million people for a country that’s almost as big.

The Torridon is one of the few accommodation spots that offer the whole gamut of activities. And it makes things a bit easier if you don’t have your own gear, or if you’re new to the area, and want an introduction from someone who knows what they’re doing. Prices are a bit high for the usual things like walking, but for things like kayaking, you are kitted out with everything, including waterproof gear.

For a comprehensive guide to the adventure activities in this beautiful land, check out Visit Scotland's adventure website.

Day 22 - Scotland West Coast - Torridon - Rain but beautiful

Christian Drew from Corriegour Lodge Hotel had told me how beautiful the drive on the A87 north from Corriegour to Torridon was going to be. The road takes you through some quintessential highland scenery, past 10 lochs (called Lochy, Garry, Loyne, Cluanie, Duich, Alsh, Carron, Kishorn, Damh and finally – phew! - Torridon). You drive through the Glenshie Mountains pass – on either side are at least 15 “peaks” of around 1000 metres. Click to see on my Google Map.

It is wild, windswept, dramatic land...and to all these qualities, you could add rainy. Because it rained hard, and the water vapour was cruel – it let me see the outlines of a fantastic landscape, but no more. It was like watching a classic movie, but with a scrambled signal reception...you know it’s a great movie, you can hear the actors and make out some of the scenes, so you watch anyway – but you’re probably better off not watching at all, because it’s so frustrating.

I felt like this while driving to Torridon. For every drop of rain that fell, my photographer’s heart broke a little more. I could imagine how wonderful it must be to photograph this area when the sun shines. Maybe next time...

I got to the famously photogenic Eilean Donan Castle, hoping that The Big Photographer Upstairs would throw me a favour, but it was raining even harder...so please would you visit it for me? If you look at the photos of Eilean Donan, you’ll understand why I wished it was going to be sunny! It’s a superb-looking, movie-star castle. Don’t miss it.

Eilean Donan Castle...

The other must-do itinerary tick is Plockton village, an out-of-the-way, yet popular spot that’s in all the guide books for its white-washed houses. Click here to see where it is on my Google Map.