Scotland 2021 – In Flora’s Footsteps

Day 1

An early start to catch the 7.30 ferry to Cairn Ryan.  This becomes somewhat of a theme.  We had booked seats in the Hygge lounge, highly recommended for some peace and quiet in comfy seats.  Covid restrictions on-board included mask wearing while moving about the ship, social distancing in queues, and a limit on the number of people allowed in the shop.

As we headed north, I felt echoes of Scottish dances as we passed signs for Ardrossan, Dumbarton, Breadalbane.

We crossed the lofty Erskine Bridge and stopped at Starbucks for a quick lunch.  Limited seating indoors, and a one-way system.

The road up the side of Loch Lomond is quite narrow, very busy, and there are a number of roadworks.  This was our longest driving day, and our next stop was at the famous Green Welly, where travellers can take a comfort break, get a coffee, something to eat, and browse the extensive range of gifts and outdoor gear.  I got a jigsaw, a tartan notebook (in which to record these thoughts and observations), and a Green Welly bauble for the Christmas tree!  I buy a new decoration each year, usually on vacation, as it’s lovely to have these reminiscences when decorating the tree in the first weekend of December. It’s tradition, dontchayno.

From here, the scenery really becomes glorious, especially the stunning steep sided Glen Coe.  Though I’m never quite sure whether as a Campbell I’m strictly allowed here….

We were staying in the Ben Nevis Hotel in Fort William.  It’s a bit outside the town centre, but has plenty of parking.  It’s showing its age and is a bit rough round the edges.  There is a swimming pool, but you need to book a time, so I wasn’t that organised.  We also had to book a time for dinner, so at 6 pm we settled at our table in the bar.  It is table service only, and they are quite strict about this.  The staff appeared to be struggling, and weren’t really watching the room.  I know the hospitality industry has suffered greatly during the pandemic, and post-brexit it is difficult to recruit new employees for this type of work. 

The food arrived – but no cutlery.  Even though the knives and forks are in a basket on the bar top, you are not allowed to go and just lift some.  My salmon and prawn starter was tasty, but the spinach tortellini got a bit cold during the wait for cutlery.  The waitress didn’t know what wine they had, or what the soup of the day was.

The England football match was on.  It was being shown on a big screen in a large room next to the bar – you were supposed to book a seat, but that did not deter some determined fans who snuck in anyway.

We spotted the “Harry Potter” steam train shunting into a nearby siding, and that gave us an idea for the next day’s adventure…..

I fell asleep during the football and only discovered the next day that Italy had won!  I knew I had a bet on them so I waited for the betting site to let me know what my winnings were.

Day 2

Having seen the Hogwarts Express we decided to see if we could get tickets on The Jacobite, a famous steam train that goes twice a day between Fort William and Mallaig.  Seats, especially first class, are booked out months in advance, but a helpful sales assistant on the phone revealed that there are a few seats available on the day from the train itself.  Cash only (£49 each), queue up where indicated and then head for coach D.  Be careful where you leave your car – don’t park in Morrisons car park, use the Long Stay one instead (£4 for 10 hours).

The train itself has a teensy Harry Potter shop where you can purchase chocolate frogs, every flavour jelly beans, magic wands etc, as well as jigsaw puzzles featuring the famous viaduct.  (It even appears on the back of a Scottish tenner!) There’s a small buffet car too, but you can bring your own food on board, so I bought a packet of haggis crisps in the shop in the station.

The passengers are a mix of Potter fans and steam train nerds.  The view from the left hand side approaching the viaduct is the better one, and there is a short stop in Glenfinnan where we admired the old carriages and even a snow plough.  A kilted piper stuck up a few tunes – I was tempted to ask if he knew Flora McDonald and offer to dance…..

The train has a distinctive noise and feel – the chuff-de-chuff and “I think I can, I think I can” chant as we rattle along, the smoke obscuring the view from the windows coming out of tunnels, and the little black “smutties” that come through the open windows.

We stopped for precisely one minute at Ardrisaig.  This is so that the train spotters can say that they have been to the most westerly mainland railway station.

Past the Sands of Morar (another dance) and we are soon pulling into Mallaig station, where lots of seagulls are nesting.  The nearest loos are just past the police station, and cost 30p, though you can pay contactless.  Mallaig is a busy port, with fishing vessels and Cal-Mac ferries, as well as plenty of cafes and restaurants.  We found the cute little Harry Potter shop in Haggard Alley, where I was tempted by the Cloak of Invisibility. 

Lunch was in The Cabin, a delicious meal accompanied by a salad mercifully free of red onion, and some friendly service.

We left Mallaig at 2.10, I haven’t quite worked out how the engine got to the other side of the train, for there is no turntable.

One coach was now empty, as the passengers had only journeyed one way, so we were able to find seats on the side with the better view.  There are loads of bystanders and onlookers waving in the vicinity of the viaduct itself, and people also  wave and video and photograph from the road which runs parallel to the track for most of the journey.  On a sadder note, the only white wine on board was sauvignon blanc.

Back just after 4, the weather was a wee bit dreich, as they say in these parts, so we didn’t attempt any more sight-not-seeing.

I don’t think my emails are updating properly – still haven’t heard from the betting site.

Day 3

Early start, and after breakfast we set off around 8 am.  We stopped at the Glenfinnan Monument, where Bonnie Prince Charlie  ( to give him his full name Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart)  raised his standard to commence the Jacobite Rebellion.  The view from the little mound behind the visitor centre is amazing.  It’s a short uphill walk, but definitely worth it.

We reached Mallaig at 10, where we were catching the ferry over to Armadale on Skye.  It was a bit misty and murky, but at £16 for the crossing, this is easily the best way to get to Skye.  Had a cup of tea, saw no dolphins.

We stopped for lunch in the Broadford Hotel, rather fine bowls of Cullen skink with warm crusty rolls. 

I’d read of the legend of Sligachan Bridge, (built by Thomas Telford), where a local female warrior Scathach did battle with our own Cú Chulainn, but when they resolved their differences without causing mass world destruction the fairies granted the gift of eternal beauty to anyone who immersed their face in the river for 7 seconds.  Made perfect sense to me, and of course I had a go!  So if you don’t recognise me next time we meet this’ll be why. There is also a statue of a pair of mountaineers who mapped out routes in the mighty Cuillin Mountains.

The next stop was colourful Portree, where we had an ice cream and a wee dander.  As we had plenty of time, we decided to try going to Flora McDonald’s grave and memorial, but it was a narrow and twisty single track road so we gave up.

We stayed at the Skeabost View B and B, it’s a little bit remote but has lovely views, and a friendly and welcoming host.  After a bit of chillaxing time, we drove back into Portree for fish and chips by the pier.  There’s a bit of a wait for these, as it’s a really popular spot.

Back at the B and B we enjoyed watching the sun set and the tide come in, while spotting rabbits in the fields and a sea eagle soaring overhead.

Day 4

We had ordered breakfast the day before.  Very fine black pudding indeed comes from Charles Macleod.  I had veggie sosig and scrambled legs.  We had another early start to catch the ferry at Uig, and were there just before 8.30. There’s not much in Uig, but a rather nice little pottery shop does have some tempting wares.  This ferry (to Lough Maddy on North Uist) goes at some peculiar times, and not the same time every day, so double check if you are planning on using this route.   The views departing Skye are just gorgeous, and there’s plenty of spaces in the lounges, but it’s breezy on deck!  Cal-Mac are quite good at keeping social distancing, especially at avoiding congregating on stairs when returning to vehicles.  Saw no dolphins.

We arrived in the Outer Hebrides to rather grey and overcast weather, but made our way down some narrow lanes to Baleshare Beach.  Windswept and deserted, large pebbles, turquoise surf rolling in, and a very strong breeze!

The guidebook that I’d bought at the Green Welly didn’t show many roads on the map, but it did have an attraction in “Flora McDonald’s House”.  It took a bit of hunting down, and was reached down a farmer’s lane, where at the foot of the mound on which it stood were a group of cows and what appeared to be a bull.  I made my way to the monument with some trepidation, trying to exude lots of “I come in peace!” vibes to the cattle, but it was unnerving.

The memorial could really do with some (OK, a lot) of TLC.  There is an inscription, but it was so old I couldn’t make it out.  I had planned to video myself doing the highland dance “Flora McDonald’s Fancy” on this spot.  I started, but went wrong in the second step as I was a wee bitty nervous about antagonising the coos!  So I abandoned that and tiptoed my way back to the car saying “there there, nice cattle” in what I hoped was a soothing voice.

Having left from Skye and already been on North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist, we thought we might as well add another island to our itinerary, and crossed the causeway to Eriskay, bemused by the “Otters crossing” sign as we did.  The causeway only opened 20 years ago and was a much welcomed transport link.  We visited the well-stocked Eriskay shop, where I bought a colourful wall calendar for next year.  And had a drink in Am Politician, the pub named after the vessel which ran aground near here carrying a valuable cargo of whisky, inspiring the book and film “Whisky Galore”.

Our stopover this evening was the Borrodale Hotel, in a lovely room that had recently been refurbished and has a bath with Jacuzzi jets!  Their anti-Covid measures were being very well observed, with one way systems and social distancing.

Dinner was langoustines and seafood linguine, though I was disappointed to find crab sticks as part of the seafood.  Early to bed as we had a very early start next day to catch yet another ferry.

Day 5

The hotel had provided a takeaway breakfast for us as we were leaving so early – fruit juice, sandwiches, crisps, piece of fruit, yoghurt and a chocolate biscuit.  We arrived just before 6 am at Lough Boisdale terminal, which is small but efficient. This was a long ferry crossing, and I found a good spot on the top deck to take in the stunning views as we left Uist, and sailed between Skye and the “cocktail islands” of Eigg, Muck and Rum.  And Canna.

Saw dolphins!  Several pods of orca, with their black fins repeatedly breaking the surface.  A keen passenger with binoculars did exclaim “whale!” at one point, but I didn’t see it.

Disembarking was well organised, with staff ensuring that there was no congregating on the stairs.  We were quickly off into Mallaig (again) and back down the Road to the Isles.  We had hoped that our timings might allow us to photograph the Jacobite as our paths crossed, but it was stopped at Glenfinnan station as we passed.

The sun was shining on Ben Nevis and the surrounding scenery as we made our way to Oban and the Great Western Hotel.  There is some parking to the front, which is £6 per night and protected by lockable bollards.

We took an “aimless wander” along the seafront, and had a drink at the Oban Inn, watching the constant stream of maritime traffic across the bay.  Continuing on to South Pier I had scampi and chips while he had battered black pudding!

Back to the hotel we checked in and unpacked.  I walked up the steep hill to McCaig’s folly, where I posted a “where’s Linda” Facebook picture.  And lo, one of my old pals from Luxembourg said that she lives in Oban and we arranged to meet for coffee the next day.

We had dinner at Coast – I had veggie curry which was rather nice.

Day 6

I found a chatbox on my betting site to see why my winnings hadn’t been paid out…..only to discover I’d bet on the wrong flippin’ competition!  I headed out early for a run, and my headphones were not working, so I was full of self-recrimination and negative thoughts as I ran to Ganavan Sands, where the parkrun would be, if it were on.

Breakfast was a bit slow, having to wait to be served, and for tea/ coffee top ups. 

We had hoped to visit the “hollow mountain” dam at Cruachan, but their phone line said that they would remain closed throughout 2020 (sic).  (Rumour has it a major blockbuster movie is currently being filmed there).  Instead, we visited the rugged stronghold at Dunstaffnage Castle, home to my Campbell ancestors, and where Flora McDonald was held after BPC’s escape.  The castle is currently closed to visitors, but there’s a lovely old chapel in the grounds, and the information board mentioned other old stones at Ardchattan Priory, so we went there next.  But while the Priory is open to walk around its extensive gardens (£5), the stones are a good 1800m walk away.  Across a field.  Uphill.  With livestock.  So we didn’t.

In Connel we attempted finding the Falls of Lora but without success.  For future reference they are a weir under the bridge, so check the tide times for the best views of kayakers attempting it.

Back in Oban, we tried to book a table in famous fish restaurant Ee Usk, but nothing was available, so instead we booked at the Piazza next door, given that it had lovely views over the bay. We had a light lunch of mackerel pate and Haggis pot at the Oban Inn, though we had to wait for cutlery to be brought out.  After an ice cream we had a quick potter round the charity shops, where I found an aboyne blouse for my highland dancing.  Then I went to Roxy’s bakery on Argyll Square where I met up with Clare, and we chatted about old times over a tasty lemon and blueberry slice.  She’s a bit of a whisky expert so we took a quick look into the shop at the distillery in the centre of town, and she gave me some tips and suggestions for what I might like.

I changed into a holiday maxi dress for dinner, and we headed to la Piazza.  We shared a garlic flatbread to start, and then I had very tasty seabass on leeks and linguine.  But the noise levels inside this glass box were rising alarmingly, and I slipped out as soon as I had eaten.

Wandering back to the hotel, a piper on one of the boats docked at North Pier struck up a few tunes.  I should’ve called over and asked if he could play Flora McDonald, but it was probably a bit too slippy to dance on the slipway.

Day 7

For breakfast I had fruit salad and a croissant.  The weather was a bit misty, but we braved the tight and twisty road up to Pulpit Hill, where we enjoyed great views of the bay, even though we couldn’t see too much of the islands beyond.

We took the long way round the Argyll coast to our next destination, and even managed a detour to the Clachan Bridge onto Sheil Island, the “Bridge over the Atlantic”.  This is a scarily steep bridge, we were astonished that lorries and coaches made their way over it.  It is the only way onto and off the island – so don’t listen to the satnav telling you to carry on down the road to Easdale, you’ll just have to come back on yourself.

A brief stop off at Loch Melfort Hotel to enjoy the view, and then a stop at Lochgilphead for lunch.  There is an extensive programme of work upgrading the seafront, I look forward to returning when it is complete.  We dined in a little Italian chipper, where I had a mozzarella and mushroom toastie, before getting an ice cream while we wandered to the teeny stone bridge at the edge of town and carefully crossed the road to see the Crinan Canal.  Sadly no boats were passing needing to use the swing bridge.

Our journey continued along the sumptuous shores of Loch Fyne and through Inverary.  We had a break in the Loch Fyne Oyster complex, where I stocked up on a few essentials (Oban chocolates, haggis crisps, seaweed lip balm) in the little deli, before reaching the Tarbet Hotel.

This is a very old brownstone building which stands right on a major junction in north Loch Lomond.  Traffic heading further north to Oban and Fort William makes a right hand turn here, and it is amusing (and a little scary) to watch some vehicles miss the main turn off and then try to cut down the lane meant for traffic approaching from the other direction.  I’m amazed there aren’t more accidents here! The sun was shining, we had a table outside, and the views across to Ben Lomond over the sparkling water were beautiful.

I was a little concerned at their Covid practices.  Everywhere else we had been was strict table service:  here, you just grab a table that’s free, even if there are empty glasses and crockery on it (ie it has not been sanitised between uses), and then queue at the bar for your drink.  The staff try to remind people to socially distance and wear masks, but it’s not well observed.  The revolving door was in use (at the last hotel their revolving door was NOT to be used). 

The hotel is showing its age, the floors are a bit uneven and creaky, and whilst there is a lift, you still have to negotiate stairs to get to your room.  The bedroom itself was bright and airy, though with the road nearby it’s noisy.

We’d ordered a set dinner.  I had mushroom arancini, which were not bad, and he had filo wrapped prawns.  For mains, I had the only veggie option which was a curry.  It was OK, could’ve been spicier and a few more chickpeas wouldn’t go amiss.  R ordered lamb but without the mint gravy.  Of course, it came swimming in gravy. For dessert I had churros with a very nice chocolate sauce.

After dinner we walked to the loch shore.  It’s a very busy spot, full of motorhomes and picnickers.

Day 8

Worst. Breakfast. Ever

I’d gone for an early morning run, which instead turned into a hike through the Tarbet Isle woods, with some lovely views over the loch. Came back, showered, and we went down for our allotted time of 9 am, since we were not in a huge rush.  We had booked this location as it’s only about a 3 hour drive from here to the ferry home.

Tea and coffee came OK, as well as some rather nice toast.  I ordered porridge, R the cooked breakfast with no bacon, beans or tomato, but extra haggis and 2 poached eggs.  We waited.  And waited.  After 25 mins R went to chase up the missing food.  A large bowl of grey goo with an unwiped splodge on the edge of the plate was given to me.  R got a plate containing…..2 poached eggs and some haggis.  We complained again, and asked for extra toast.  I pushed around my rather unappetising porridge, which had neither honey nor compote that the menu had promised. R’s plate arrived back.  The eggs were hard, as was the tattie scone and lorne sausage.  We asked to speak to the manager, or the most senior person in charge.  He agreed it was unacceptable, and deducted the cost of breakfast from our bill.

I do get it, staff are hard to come by and need time to be trained.  But this was clearly not just an issue for ourselves, given some of the recent reviews on Trip Advisor.  I had a bet on the extra toast arriving, but no surprises given my gambling prowess that it did not.

Packing and checkout done, we took a route via Garelochhead which avoided the heavy traffic down Lomond’s side.  This is still the nuclear naval base, which provided for a different sort of view.  We stopped in Helensburgh for an ice cream at Dino’s, admiring the black sails of the boats racing on the water.

Back across the Erskine Bridge and the scenery is a lot more mundane.  Slow moving traffic and roadworks held us up a bit, and I didn’t get to do a five minute stop for shortbread-and-tablet-for-the-office.  Ach well, it’s for their own good!

Final ferry home was grand, I do love watching the H&W cranes loom large as we approach.  No dolphins though.

Haste Ye Back, say all the signs as you leave a wee village or toon.  Don’t worry, we will.

One Response

  1. I’m seriously jealous and can’t wait to get back to Scotland. Hope we can both manage Perth in Nov for the AGM

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