5 days in the Scottish Highlands
A rugged, wet and wild journey around the Scottish Highlands
"What shall we do?
"... come back tomorrow?"
"Come back tomorrow, 100%".
We laughed as we turned around right at the beginning of the Old Man of Storr walking trail, passing another couple who shared a knowing glance and a chuckle, as the two of us in our shorts, seemingly unprepared for the gailforce winds and rain, made our way back to our rented Land Rover to instead tackle the trail the next day.
The weather was grim, so frustratingly wet and windy right from the day we started our 5 day trip around the Scottish Highlands, aiming to take in only some of the beautiful highlights the Highlands have to offer.
It was wet, windy and wild, but a brilliant experience.
The route was one we'd planned ourselves, starting with a direct flight from Bristol into Inverness, where 'Wild Trax', the Land Rover rental company, had arranged for a taxi transfer to take us to their headquarters. We'd then drive to Loch Ness and camp at Fort Augustus for our first night.
First things first - Wild Trax. I could not recommend them enough. They provide you with everything - all the camping gear you could possibly need, plus a Land Rover for your trip. Zero fuss.
Our first true experience of Scotland was driving along Loch Ness - it's spectacular. Driving South down the Western edge of the lake gives you views on your right of hills touching the clouds, with the huge expanse of the Loch. There seemed to be plenty of layby's to pull into for photo opportunities with some also being used for campervans - a really popular method of travelling around Scotland.
As we were making our way south down the lake to Fort Augustus, the clouds were building, and the first drops of rain started to appear. The lake became choppy as the winds picked up, and we watched as a group of kayakers battled their way through the water.
We made our way to Loch Ness Highland Resort - a campsite, spot for camerpervans as well as offering adorable cabins to stay in. It's tucked away off the main road, and provides great views of the surrounding hills. The entrance marked by a enormous bronze stag. It's definitely a place I'd recommend, providing good facilities and close enough to the town proper to walk into.
We took the opportunity to walk into town for fish & chips, but the town also contains a strip of shops, the Caledonian Canal Visitor's Center, and a couple of cute pubs looking incredibly warm and welcoming on either side of the descending Lochs, part of the Caledonian Canal - a 60 mile stretch of Canal between Inverness and Fort William. The Loch is in part famous for the 29 Lochs it contains, 8 of which make up 'Neptune's Staircase' found in Fort William.
In Fort Augustus, crossing over the bridge you can then follow a short path to your right along a spit of land that will take you to the waters edge, to the Loch Ness View Point, where you can convince yourself that the sounds of lapping water and darting figures of fish beneath the surface are signs of the mythical monster. From here you can also see the Lighthouse, which you can actually rent out to stay in.
Back at camp and determined not to let the wet weather get to us on our first night, we hurriedly set up camp in the growing dusk, excited for the trip and trying our best to sort out everything for the next day, then huddled in the surprisingly warm tentbox - which is so simple to use, simply unhooking the straps and it pops open into place, with a ladder to gain access; the patter of raindrops on our tent lulling us eventually to sleep.
Eilean Donan Castle
Our second day started with me pulling the tentbox closed and flooding myself with water that had pooled on top. Fantastic start. "See the funny side," Ali said, dry and warm in the passenger seat.
The plan for this day involved some hefty driving, but it did took take us through some fantastic scenery - patches of dense forest, and winding roads through valleys with steep hills to either side. "This is where you'd find Hogwarts."
Our first stop was Eilean Donnel Castle, where we also planned to have breakfast. The Landy comes with a fridge box, so we'd brought bacon and some sausages to cook up on the stove. You also get all the gear for cooking including plenty of gas, plus a small table and all cooking utensils - but we didn't get a chance to cook on that first day, with the high winds making it impossible to light. So instead we survived on a mixture of snacks we'd stocked up on; birthday cake and pastries, all from the Tesco conveniently close to Wild Trax HQ - a great first stop to stock up before heading off.
Eilean Donnel Castle is incredibly picturesque; situated on a small island, it marks the point where three Lochs meet. You can, when there aren't Covid restrictions, walk the stone bridge right up to the castle and take a tour. The closest we could get was the entrance gate, but you could still admire the Gothic aesthetic the castle presented in the light of a storm, with the Lochs and hills as a backdrop.
Old Man of Storr
Jumping back on the road, our next stop was the Old Man of Storr trail, on the Isle of Skye.
The drive to Skye is fantastic; in one section taking you through the center of a valley, the rain creating waterfalls from the rock formations high up on the hillsides. Small bridges carry you over swollen streams, the water tumbling violently just mere feet away, spraying the car - and Ali, hanging out the window to get video on the GoPro.
Cloud cover was enough to shroud the more distant mountain tops in a thick haze, but the view was enjoyably imposing; dark and ominous, though no doubt better in clearer skies. ("No, this is like that scene in Harry Potter...")
We drove past a few laybys with campers parked, taking the chance to wake up right in the center of the valley, surrounded by the striking views.
Once you're on the Isle Of Skye, having crossed the Skye bridge which quite literally gives you the impression of driving off into the sky, you follow a winding road as it hugs the coastline, through small hamlets and fishing communities, the mountains staring down at you. Driving these roads isn't an issue, highlighted by the number of cumbersome looking camper vans trundling along on similar journeys.
The entrance to the Old man of Storr trail is easy to find (he says, though I drove straight past it) with a large car park off the main road marking the starting point of the trail. Once we'd delayed getting our boots on all we could and actually stepping out into the rain, we headed to the trail head, but it was here that we both decided that today was not the day for it - the weather was only getting worse, with the wind speed especially picking up. Instead we decided to head to Kilt Rock & Mealt Falls Viewpoint, a huge tumbling waterfall that plunges over the cliff edge straight into the sea ... Seeing as how we were already wet.
Kilt Rock & Mealt Falls
The joy about driving the land rover was the unfounded increase in confidence it gave me, and as we trundled along the small Skye roads in terrible weather, it really came into it's element. Ali would hang out the window, holding the GoPro for a wide shot of the car travelling through the hills and valleys - it was pretty special.
Reaching Mealt Falls, we were joined in solidarity with the other tourists continuing to make the most of their trip, standing in the rain for a view of the waterfall. Their mishmash of colourful waterproofs standing out against the bleak, grey sky over the North Atalantic Ocean.
It was of course worth it; it's really impressive, the view point also giving you great views of the cliff line in both directions (or so I'm told). Either way, well worth a visit.
We drove round the tip of Isle of Skye, to Kinloch Campsite. We were given a spot right by the water's edge, feeling the full brunt of the winds. At this point there was a yellow weather warning in place for the whole of Scotland, and they weren't exaggerating. Winds were set to steadily increase overnight, which we were all too aware of us the car was rocked from side to side, the open tentbox catching the wind. I had visions of it ripping off in the night with us inside.
Picture us sat in our 3tonne Landy, feeling it being rocked from side to side; Ali Googling a cheaky hotel for us to spend the night in, whilst I googled the maximum wind speeds the tentbox could handle, convincing us that "it simply isn't safe. We should get a hotel".
And so we called it, travelling back to Portree and staying in a hotel. Hey, you may judge, but an extra plus was it gave us the chance to dry and fully sort out all our gear, as well as spend the rest of the day in Portree. It felt like cheating, staying in a hotel for the night during what was supposed to be 3 nights of 'wild' camping - but I certainly wasn't complaining.
Our afternoon and night in Portree turned out to be a great decision. We checked into The Royal hotel, and then went for a walk around the town. It's very quaint, with a lovely harbour full of boats, little restaurants, cafes and shops - all closed or only offering takeaway service due to COVID, but you could still get a sense of the charm that this town has to offer.
A hilltop known as 'The Lump' holds an old 19th-century watch tower, which you can walk up for views over the harbour and surrounding waters. The colourful shops and homes pepper the otherwise lush green hillsides, and various boats lie moored out to sea.
There's a trail around the base of 'The Lump', which will take you in a circular route from town, to the access trail to the top, and back into town - a narrow, rugged trail that's well worth the walk for some enticing views through the trees across Loch Portree.
To be continued ...