Cullen Skink

I’m not sure why? All I know is that road trips heading north always seem more satisfying. From my part of the world the Scottish border is an hour or so drive and the north coast a mere eleven.

Over the years we have had many family holidays to Scotland. In recent times these trips have fallen by the wayside. Time for the status quo to be restored, early April 2016 therefore saw the better half and I set out once more on a Scottish adventure.

Our goal was a village called Kinlochbervie in the far northwest of Scotland. We had decided to break the long journey and spend a couple of nights in the highland city of Inverness.

My love affair with Scotland began many years ago when my children were young. We ventured north for the first time to Ullapool. A cheap week camping, Dad and lads bonding that sort of thing. The weather was atrocious. It rained all week, every hour of every day and three of us in a small weekend tent. I’m not sure about bonding it was more like a special forces exercise on the shores of Loch Broom. We were cold and wet all week. On one particularly bad night I had to go out and tie the tent to the car. It was virtually blown flat, we slept with the damp walls of the tent pressed against our faces. In that moment, I fell in love with this stunning corner of the British mainland.

The drive north allowed me to reflect what a fine country I live in. In one day, we passed the Pennine Hills, Cleveland Hills, Howgill Fells, Lake District, the southern uplands of Scotland and the Highlands.

I don’t get far these days without it seems I need to take a break. We were still in Yorkshire when I made the first stop at Scotch Corner. It’s simply a road junction with a small rest area still quite a way from Scotland. Names of junctions and roundabouts gives the traveller some perspective. Scotch Corner has certainly reminded generations of travellers that they were heading in the right direction. I was once on Noirmoutier an island off the coast of France. Just before we left the island to drive across the causeway linking it to mainland France was a sign that said simply ’Le Continent’. Brilliant, island dwellers with some perspective of their place in the world. Maybe some British people need reminding we’re simply an island a few miles off the coast of ‘Le Continent’.

I decided against a drink at the award-winning coffee bar as it was a long leg to the next to the services on the M6. We had also just arrived as a battalion or however many a lot is, of very hungry squaddies in rather cool looking personnel carriers. They were ordering a huge supply of sausage and egg butties. Smart bunch of young lads, keep up the good work, an army certainly marches on its stomach or this one was.

Onwards ever onwards along the countries motorways and A roads. The east coast route when heading to Scotland is my favourite. The only problems is there are just too many distractions. Holy Island, Berwick upon Tweed, North Berwick, lighthouses, beaches and the amazing Forth road and rail bridges. No, I was on a mission to get myself north as fast as possible, England has been getting me down this last year. It was time for some time away, time for some of that fresh pragmatic Scottish air.

I’ve never a been a weekend break sort of person. Inverness though is as good a place as any to practice the art. Pubs, restaurants, shops, museums and lots of interesting places to visit further out-of-town. Our accommodation was for two nights at a Bed and Breakfast just a ten-minute stroll to the city centre. It was an excellent place to stay with friendly owners, great food and comfortable rooms set in a beautiful period house.

I had only ever driven through the outskirts of Inverness when heading north. I was surprised at its size. Everything the north of Scotland needs seems to be hemmed into this pocket-sized city. A railway station, airport linking it to the rest of the country. The A9 does need to be and is it seems being improved. It is being dualled all the way from Perth which will improve travel to this part of Scotland tremendously. The only down side I was told by a local is that it is planned to take fifteen years to complete. That’s nothing he told me, the dualling of the road to Aberdeen wouldn’t be finished for thirty!

Turning off the A9 we made our way passed the warehouses, car dealers and supermarkets towards the older part of town and our digs. I’m sure there is much to do in Inverness of note. Our short visit was going to be more about out-of-town attractions. Meals out and strolls around the evening town were as much as we were to see of this fine city. A couple of nice meals out at the start of a week that would be mainly self-catering didn’t seem too much of an extravagance while we were in town.

I had gone for the easy option and resorted to TripAdvisor. After a quick wash and brush up we headed into town to try to find the sites number one recommendation for Inverness, The Fig and Thistle Bistro. Leaving our B & B we soon found the River Ness at the end of the street. We crossed its wide expanse using a very smart footbridge. The river is only seven miles long and links the inland waters of Loch Ness to the Moray Firth.

Inverness seemed to be just like any other British town with charity shops, banks, big chain eateries and coffee houses. Having no idea where the restaurant was, time for this old duffer to step into the 21st century and Google it. I knew the young folks did this kind of thing all the time. I soon found a map and started following the route through town ‘simples’. Just this past weekend I found an old A to Z of Leeds from 1960 in a library. Goodness me how things have changed.

‘The Fig and Thistle’ was duly found on Stephens Brae. It’s delightful, a small restaurant with a nice ambiance. The first night of a holiday falls into the category of special occasion, doesn’t it? It must have done because I was tempted by the menu enough to have all three courses.

Spinach and Parmesan salad with roasted nuts, seeds and pesto dressing. My main was I think halibut in a blue cheese sauce with asparagus, other veggies and mash. Desert well I could have had three, cheesecake with ice cream that had coffee or cappuccino theme going on it was delish.

My dinner date had pate, duck and can’t remember the desert. Not that there was anything wrong with it’s just been so long. The best we can do is Eton Mess or something with coconut!

The next morning saw us heading off to Fort George which all the guidebooks tell us is one of the most impressive fortifications in Europe. It was built-in the wake of the Battle of Culloden (1746) as a secure base for King George II army in the area. It was never used in anger but has been used as a British army base for 250 yrs.

The walk around the mile long walk perimeter walls with magnificent views over the Moray Firth was worth the entrance fee alone. The other thing that made the whole experience a little different from the usual castle and museum visit is that the site is still and active army base. There were guards on the gate and soldiers from the The Black Watch 3rd battalion of The Royal Regiment of Scotland going about their day-to-day business.

One of the museums on the site is that of the Highlanders and it was packed with information about the history of regiments in the highlands of Scotland. I often feel a little overwhelmed in museums as there is so much to take in. These days I try therefore to find a few highlights to concentrate on. On this occasion, I gravitated towards the medal room.

I have never seen a Victoria Cross in real life. It is the highest award members of the British and Commonwealth military can receive. I began scanning the hundreds of medals all no doubt with fascinating and worthy histories. Eventually I found a Victoria cross then several more. I read the stories of bravery and self-sacrifice attached to them making the hair on my neck bristle. In fact, I counted eight in the one room. A chap with his family nearby summed it up for all in the room. He simply said ‘amazing’.

We had planned to visit the whale and Dolphin Centre at Elgin. After strolling around and thoroughly enjoying Fort George time was now against us. Time to head back into Inverness for our next dining experience.

Once again we were visiting Stephens Brae. The restaurant is called ‘Little Italy’ and is next to ‘The Fig and Thistle’, so no problem finding it. It was all you could ask from a small Italian restaurant. Like hundreds up and down the country lively, friendly and pleasant food. A young chap on the next table was with his dining companion celebrating his nineteenth birthday. I smiled as I was reminded when at a similar age in the early 1980’s I visited ‘Da Marios’ in Leeds for the first time. A lot has changed since then, yet not so much. Little Italy is a small independent restaurant well worth checking out. If I lived a little closer, I could become a regular visitor at both restaurants.

My conclusions on two days in Inverness are that I would recommend it for a weekend break. Unless you particularly enjoy slogging along hundreds of miles of congested British roads then the train or plane might be worth looking at. Saturday though had dawned it was and time to move on the hundred or so miles to Kinlochbervie.

Today we were off in search of Dolphins. Not far from Inverness on the north shore of the Moray Firth is Chanonry Point. A pleasant spot with a long beach leading back to the village of Rosemarkie. There is a lighthouse for the pharologists among you. The thing that I guess it’s most famous for is that you can stand at the end of this spit of land and watch dolphins in their natural environment. If you are lucky and time it right they will be feeding and generally having fun just a few feet away from you.

If they do grace you with their presence it will be a day you will never forget. If they don’t, well there are worse places to spend time relaxing, contemplating the bigger picture. It was probably twenty years ago that I dragged my boys to the end of Chanonry point one very cold Easter. For years, we saw nothing, I was a novice at the wildlife lark. I still am though I know now they swim in or is it out? with the tide feeding as they go. Carrying out a little research before you go can therefore can dramatically improve your chances of a sighting.

We randomly visited the point many times over the years until finally one afternoon in late May about ten years ago, we were treated to a wonderful display of acrobatics and such proximity to three or four dolphins. It was a wonderful experience.

For this most recent visit I had planned it, checked the tides and we set off early straight after breakfast. The bed and breakfast had been fab, now though it was time to leave. I was in a rush to see some dolphins. It was a beautiful morning when we arrived and not a soul in sight. Slowly though single people and small groups began to gather like some ancient sea worshiping religious festival. Everyone looking patiently, expectantly eastwards toward the open sea.

Everyone waited patiently all with one desire, to hang out with one of our planets most beautiful and intelligent creatures. Hard to fathom after all we have done to their kith and kin around the world that they would even give us one second of their time.

I was in a happy place as they say these days. Did we see a dolphin? well the lady from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation who was there to spot them said she’d seen one. Then yes me too, it was swimming miles out and I just had to tell everyone around. I was glad when someone else saw it too. A few seconds was all but it was worth it and there’s always next year.

Time was pressing with a lot still to do. Lunch in Cromarty, use the smallest car ferry in the country and visit Tarbat Ness lighthouse before we left the North Sea coast and headed inland. What a lovely place Cromarty is, a little out-of-the-way situated as it is at the eastern end of the Black Isle. In the past when I have visited there had been a small car ferry, I always thought it was the smallest in the UK. I remember it only took one, maybe two cars. It crosses the Cromarty Firth and links up again with the rest of Scotland at Nigg. Tarbat Ness lighthouse is not far from there and I have never been. I wouldn’t be going on this trip either.

I should plan my holidays better, the ferry it seems only runs in the summer. I was probably trying to fit too much into the day anyway. More time for Cromarty and lunch. There’s a quaint little harbour, lots of oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth waiting to be fixed, a lighthouse, and a links area. I liked the links it reminded me of a village green but down by the sea. Situated on the links is a modern-day standing stone dedicated to the many people who departed from Cromarty as emigrants to north America.

The inscription on the standing stone reads;

‘The

Cleopatra  

As she swept past

The town of

Cromarty

Was greeted

With three cheers

By crowds of

The inhabitants

And 

The emigrants

Returned

The salute

But

Mingled with

The dash

Of the waves

And the murmurs

Of the breeze

Their faint

Huzzas seemed

Rather sounds

Of wailing

And

Lamentation

Than of

Congratulatory

Farewell’

Lunch was lovely at a little café called ‘Coupars Creek’, I had Cullen Skink for the first time. It seems to be fish and potato soup. Very nice it was too well worth a visit if you are in the area. Anyway, Cromarty had been visited and with no ferry north it was time to retrace our steps and head over to the west coast.

There aren’t that many roads to choose from when travelling to Kinlochbervie, maybe two or three. We were heading to Ullapool for no other reason than it has a reasonable sized supermarket. It was time to stock up for our northern adventure.

En route we have previously passed a forest with what some large conifer trees. It was time for some exercise. Pulling into a car park a few miles before Ullapool I discovered I had stumbled across a garden, always a good thing. The Lael forest garden to be precise. For a tree hugger this was a wonderful spot. A woodland on a hillside with all kind of trees, tracks and quiet places. Walks from ten minutes up to an hour or so. I was it is fair to say in my element only the dog was missing as I ambled around this beautiful place.

I could have stayed for hours but we still had a long way to go. Ullapool beckoned, a supermarket and then the last sixty miles through some of the most stunning scenery anywhere! Just one bloke’s opinion of course but my old heart lifts whenever I return to this part of our island.

We had stayed in the accommodation in KLB a few times before and had been delighted to find that it was still available as a rental property. It is I think fair to say the cottage is worth the weekly rate for the view alone. Something to eat, a cup of tea and sleep was the order of the day. I was where I wanted to be. A long way from the deranged, selfish world that seems to have been trying to consume me for the last year. Tomorrow was another day, with a whole week to explore the wonderful county of Sutherland.

Early spring is my favourite time to visit Scotland. The roads are quiet, you can have beaches to yourself and most important of all, there are no midges. That just leaves the weather which can be wonderful or not. This year was OK. Cold, rain and occasional sunshine. We’d have to make the best of it, if you haven’t got a sense of humour then don’t go to Scotland in March/April. All the talk in this most northwestern tip of the British mainland was about Tuesday’s weather, apparently we were in for some rain!

The short city break part of our holiday in Inverness was over. The rest of the week would be about fresh air, sand and sea. Sunday morning had dawned and we were in Kinlochbervie. Time to get this show on the road.

After all the driving of the previous few days an easy day was called and the fourteen mile trip to Durness was just what the Doctor ordered. This area is quite spectacular and easily has enough to keep me entertained for a weeks holiday.

Durness is a sprawling village on the north coast of Britain and it marks the point where the road you are travelling turns right. You begin to travel east along the north coast instead of north along west coast. It seems that since the first time we visited twenty years ago plenty of other people have decided to visit this part of Scotland. There  seemed to be many more folk around at this early time of year especially campervans. There always was the die hard Belgium, Dutch and Italian visitors. Now though there seemed to be a plethora of UK hire vans. It must surely be hell in the summer travelling on the areas wonderful single track road, hey ho. Durness has everything you need camping, accommodation, restaurants, a supermarket and fuel.

Not far from Durness is an old military camp at the hamlet of Balnakiel where generations of resourceful types have made homes and craft businesses. It’s always popular and the bookshop was our favourite spot. Unfortunately this has now closed. There is some good news though the building is now used by Cocoa Mountain an artesian chocolatiers. They claim to make one of the  best hot chocolates in the world. It’s not a drink I have often but when people make claims like that you have to test them out, right?

My goodness it was wonderful, I went large. I shouldn’t have, the sugar rush was quite intense. Hot chocolate, with cream and drizzled melted white chocolate on top. The best I have ever had I am quite certain of that. After this assault on my body I attempted to walk it off along the beach at Balnakiel I had intended to go all the way to the end of Faraid head but rather foolishly had put wellies on and not walking shoes. With the onset of blisters I decided on a slow walk back to the car exploring the beautiful dunes of the beach along the way.

Heading back to Durness I visited Smoo cave, something of an anomaly in the northwest highlands. It seems that there is a band of limestone running through the area which has given rise to this large sea cave. The cave has been formed by the dual action of a stream running through it and the sea. It is a very popular but interesting side trip.

Monday was always going to be the best day of the week weather wise. The forecast was for wind, rain showers and a little on the cold side. Not bad for these parts, a good day for a walk then. Not too far from Kinlochbervie is a hamlet called Blairmore with a small car park. This is the starting point for a four mile hike over a good moorland path. To where you might ask, well quite simply one of the best beaches anywhere in the world. Sandwood Bay is a stunning mile long beach backed by large dunes and behind these is the freshwater Sandwood Loch.

The beach is on land owned by The John Muir who it seems have resisted all attempts at making the beach more accessible by building a road. Long may this continue, wilderness in our crowded little island is a precious thing. Time for a quick chat with a farmer tending to his ponies. The talk was again of the weather and how wonderful it had been the previous week. We talked a little of gardening and I of the amount of moss in lawns down south. I realised how silly my conversation was in a land of rock and moss until out in the middle of nowhere on a moorland road a few days later I saw a van advertising itself as a lawn care company!

Anyways on to Sandwood Bay and an invigorating early morning walk. At the start there are views of the surrounding hills but no suggestion of the coast. I guessed 4 miles would take me something over an hour so got my head down and headed off. After the said hour of wind and rain the final up hill section was approaching. The lie of the land began to indicate the valley where Sandwood Loch was situated.

Finally that elusive glimpse of the sea and then that first view of that long sweeping bay. Everything in this part of Scotland is on such a grand scale and in particular in this wild corner where there are no buildings or even roads for scale. Like a child on his first visit to the seaside I scamper as fast as my aging frame will allow downhill through the dunes and onto the beach. My first impression was the noise. The wind and wild Atlantic were like a jet engine stuck on full throttle. It really was that noisy. I lingered a while, ate my sandwiches and drank coffee. I wondered whether there would be a place in which I could be happier. This would be a recurring theme for the rest of the holiday. There were a handful of other visitors on the beach.  It is so big that it is always easy to feel isolated. Other folk are just dots in the distance and soon disappear altogether from view.

I have all my life been a swimmer. Swimming pools, the sea, rivers, lakes anywhere really. My swimming has though fallen a little by the wayside in recent years. I have also discovered that there is a new craze sweeping the land ‘wild swimming’.

I had decided therefore that this holiday would see a renaissance of this adventure in my life. I’d even bought a pair of those rubber shoes you wear on the beach. I had packed the lot. Trunks, towel and fetching rubber shoes as today there would be an opportunity for a swim. I was excited and headed inland away from the beach towards Sandwood Loch a beautiful stretch of water. Fed I suppose by mountain streams and dammed by the sand dunes that run along the length of the beach. What can I say it was freezing cold and I bottled out. It wasn’t as if there was even anyone within five miles to talk me out of it. Oh well, I am going wild swimming again just not today in Sandwood Loch.

Tuesday started with a 10/10 for the weatherman. It was raining and looked set to rain for the rest of eternity. It was a day for the car. Lochinver beckoned there used to be a bookshop in the hills outside of town. As we headed south a young hitchhiker was standing in the rain. It turned out she was from Canada and was spending time travelling. She needed to reach Ullapool for a connecting bus to Inverness then onwards to London and the refugee/migrant camps in Calais.

It was encouraging to meet someone who was giving up time to help these unfortunate people on the margins of society. We talked about Brexit and the European migrant crisis. Our hitchhiker had helped the previous year in camps in the Greek Islands . This is a travel story but I have been deeply affected by what I have seen in the media of the situation unfolding as many thousand of people have drowned trying to enter Europe. The UK has it’s own problems with Brexit to resolve but it saddens me that the EU doesn’t do more to help these people.

As ever politicians and the press pontificate and the rest of us turn a blind eye or don’t care, thousands of human beings are drowning on the doorstep of one of the wealthiest regions on earth. Meeting the young woman gave me heart, as does following the exploits of charity rescue organisations that are operating in the Mediterranean. The world I know is a bad place, it’s sometimes good to be reminded that it’s not all bad.

We didn’t take her all the way to Ullapool, maybe we should. Anyhow we dropped her in the middle of nowhere in the rain. Sounds pretty bad but we pulled up near a nearby with a car with a couple who looked like holidaymakers. Our intrepid traveller thanked us and headed off to negotiate the next stage of her journey. As we headed off in the rain toward Lochinver I felt a little bad until a few minutes later the bus to Ullapool from Lochinver passed. I relaxed as I was sure if she hadn’t got a lift then she could at least catch the bus.

Lochinver was passed time while the north of Scotland was subjected to this Tuesday deluge. I learnt very on when travelling to Scotland that life goes on despite the weather. I had a little walk around the harbour, did some shopping and headed off to Achins bookshop a few miles outside town along a narrow winding mountain road. It was worth the trip we had a simple lunch and coffee. I did though find a book to keep me busy for the rest of the holiday about the man himself ‘Journey’s in The Wilderness – A John Muir Reader’. Lochinver was fun, it rained, then rained some more, we left. The week was going well and the one day of continuous rain would soon be over.

Rain showers, sun and wind would be on the cards for the rest of the week, which would be fine for getting out and about. Wednesday I was awake early so decided on a beachside stroll. Oldshoremore Beach Known locally as Am Meallan is only a few miles from Kinlochbervie. I have visited the beach many times when on holiday in the area. There is something truly magical about that place where the land meets the sea. A beach anywhere is special but Oldshoremore is a pretty attractive place. It is approached along a lonely single track road and then down a steep hill passing through the scattered hamlet bearing the same name as the beach or is it the other way around, who knows?

The small parking  at the bottom of the hill with its toilet block and rubbish bins hides what is waiting a short walk away for the intrepid beach lover. The path wends its way passed the small and well cared for cemetery, on through the high dunes before opening out to a view of the fine beach.

The path brings you out at the top of a high dune, the deep sand fine and white, low grass hummocks are all around. The beach is crescent shaped with a headland at either end. The cliffs are low, made of Lewisian Gneiss the oldest rocks in Britain, formed 3000 million years ago. Somehow this just enhances my wonder when visiting this beautiful place. To the left the cliffs soon upon you but the headland to the right Eilean na h-Aiteig is at the end of the sweeping white arc of beach. The headland takes many forms whether viewed from afar or close up. It fits perfectly in this picture of sea, land and sky.

The blackness of the rock contrast wonderfully with each of these, it can be a spectacular place at sunset as the sun disappears behind the headland. Behind the beach are the dunes and the green and brown hues of the moorland rising high above, dotted with sheep, bungalows and holiday caravans. The sand is gorgeous, firms to walk on and yet in places so soft its hard to.

It is fine and white and the beach gently shelves into the sea, which on a good day is a wonderful azure blue that would match anywhere in the world. As you wander across the expanse of white sand there are places where black rock ruptures out of the sand to give a contrast on this beautiful beach.

Along its edge there are places where the rocks have been washed smooth into pebbles and boulders of all shapes and sizes. Veins of white and pink quartz run through the rock. At the high tide mark can be found all kinds of flotsam and jetsam. Old floats and timber to adorn your garden. I also saw one of the saddest things I have ever seen on this beach, a skeleton of a dolphin or porpoise twisted and contorted completely entwined in old fishing nets.

The beach is a wonderful place to be alone or with friends and family. I have had the place to myself for many hours but also shared it with others. There are more spectacular, larger, prettier beaches in the world and it may well be that the weather is often grey and cold on its shore. It though one of the places in the world I would choose to go any time. Today was one of its cooler days intermittent sun with a strong wind blowing off the sea.

The afternoon saw us heading south once more to Ullapool a lovely town on the west coast well worthy of a holiday in its own right. Galleries, shops and restaurants abound. Soup and sandwich and stroll along the prom was just the ticket after the washout of the previous day

On the way back to the cottage I took myself on stroll around Knockan Crag a geologicl park a few miles outside Ullapool. It is a fun place with a nice hour-long walk up and along the side of the crag. There are also lots of interesting facts to be learned about the geological history of the area. I’m no expert but touching thousands of millions of years old rock puts life and it’s day-to-day troubles quickly into perspective.

The week was passing as it always does on nice holidays way too quickly. Thursday saw us once more in Durness a place I would be happy to live in. It was to be an easy day exploring the craft village, drinking coffee and hot chocolate and exploring the beach at Sango Sands.

This time we also visited the John Lennon memorial garden Garden outside the village hall. It seems the great man spent his summers here as a child. The village decided to create a gardening his memory. I’d be happy to look after it for you if I lived a little closer.

I saved my walk to Faraid Head for the last day of our holiday. It was a lovely spring day sunny but cool, windy with a touch of rain. Faraid head is one of my favourite place in this area, It has everything. A ruined church, magnificent beaches, stunning dunes and a bracing walk to the headland. Once there is the military installation that I think is used as a control centre for ships and planes bombing military land on the Cape Wrath peninsula. The views from the headland are breathtaking.

If you haven’t yet made it to Cape Wrath lighthouse there is a view of it in the west. I was once a long time ago lucky enough to see a basking shark from the cliffs on Faraid Head. I wandered back to the car through the dunes and along the beach. Not wanting to leave, knowing of course I have to. This is becoming such a popular area for holidays compared to when we first began visiting nearly thirty years ago, That of course is good for the communities of Sutherland. The popularity hasn’t detracted too much though, not if you pick a showery week in April for your visit.

The journey home on Saturday was as always tinged with sadness for me. Still though it was a thrill, the drive along Loch Shin towards the east coast. It was a solitary affair just one other car over many miles. There were of course Deer in the road and casually standing on it. Oh and it had snowed, what a magical place Scotland is. I hope to return soon.

 

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