The North Coast 500 (NC500) is a tourist route created out of existing roads that loop round the very northern part of the Highlands of Scotland. It’s been touted as Scotland’s answer to Route 66 – which is pushing it rather. It’s nowhere near as long or diverse or quirky. But it does give access to some stunning scenery you might otherwise have missed. And it’s another travel challenge to add to the list.
It was the brain child of Prince Charles, designed to get visitors into the lesser known areas of Scotland, around the perimeter. It’s possibly worked too well, as the narrow roads are rather too busy in peak season.
The route isn’t entirely straightforward. It’s not 500 miles (though the Proclaimers would like to have you think so) but 516. And I’m not sure how even that is calculated, as there are various alternatives, especially along the (IMHO) most scenic section - the northwest of Scotland. There’s a choice between scenic A roads (hardly anywhere in Scotland is not gorgeous) and the ultra gorgeous single track roads that hug the coast.
Naturally, the drawback to the latter is that they can be utterly terrifying. They teeter along the side of mountains or above lochs, constrained at times by drystone walls that edge in perilously close. There are plenty of passing places, usually occupied by sheep. But you can’t always see ahead to the on the winding roads. Campervans roar though the gaps and refuse to back down. If you can’t reverse you’re in trouble. And will be subjected to disgusted looks at best and honking horns at worst. Which of course really improve one's ability to manoeuvre in a tight space. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced anything worse than a disgusted face.
When you meet another driver who has given way you have to raise a finger in thanks. The unwritten rules state that they will raise one in return: ‘It was a pleasure to wait.’ Sometimes you get a whole hand or palm instead. However long Google says the journey will take you, double it. Or use the A roads instead and miss the fun – and the views.
The route officially begins and ends at Inverness. But you can start it anywhere - it’s circular. There are plenty of online commentaries on the route and suggested itineraries. If you took the best roads and didn’t stop you could do it in one (very long and exhausting) day. But most folk take a week or longer. I took five days this time, coming from The Western Isles. But I've driven most of this route already, before it became the NC500. Here are my impressions.
Inverness is a delightful town with river walks alongside the River Ness (no sign of the monster – I wonder if the water’s too shallow this far from the Loch) and across a series of little islets. There are some great restaurants too. The food at the Kitchen Brasserie, alongside the river, is yummy.
The route is supposed to start at Inverness Castle, but there’s no sign of any route marker around. You won’t pick any of these up till you start to get out of town.
From Inverness the road winds through Strathpeffer across country to Loch Carron and then follows the coastal road from Applecross, north and round to Shieldaig. This section is not for the faint hearted. The pass beyond Applecross is one of the highest roads in Scotland, known as the Bealach na Ba (Pass of the Cattle), for obvious reasons. It is a twisting turning beast. Once beyond here there are iconic views across to Skye and other islands.
After Shieldaig it’s Loch Torridon, one of the most beautiful and wild sea lochs in Scotland. The peaks are at their most awesome tumbling into the water. Just before Kinlochewe is a magnificent viewpoint up Glen Docherty to Loch Maree. Even Queen Victoria stopped her coach here to take in the panorama.
More rugged vistas along Loch Maree, where the mountain ash frames the shimmering water and the mighty peaks. There are streams of bikers here with their Harleys. The most organised are sporting 500 T-shirts and have accompanying vans which tote all their gear and refreshments.
The sea lochs really come into their own, past the little port of Gairloch and around Loch Ewe, which is a glittering feast for the eyes, with islets stretching to the horizon. Poolewe on the shores is a pretty village and there are also the Inverewe gardens with its tropical planting (thanks to the Gulf Stream). Then a string of incredible beaches.
Ullapool is a line of houses (and plenty of B and Bs) along the shores of lovely Loch Broom. This community of some 1500 souls is the largest place for miles around. Apparently it was rated as one of the 20 most beautiful villages in the UK and Ireland, by Condé Nast Traveller in 2020. I'm lost for words. It has its charms, but the setting is what makes it. The loch meanders inland full of bobbing boats and provides a tranquil sheltered harbour. This is where the ferry from the Isle of Lewis docks after crossing the Minch.
The coastal route from Ullapool to Lochinver and then again from Lochinver, to eight miles south of Scourie, gives the Bealach na Ba a run for its money. The second section is known as ‘The Mad Wee Road of Sutherland,’ as it switchbacks along loch-sides, skirts the sea and crests mountain ranges. But the scenery is sublime. Stunning powdery white beaches, the wildest of rocky outcrops and glittering waves. And all crowned by the starkly mysterious hills of Assynt. Stac Poleaidh, the magnificent undulating series of peaks that is. Quinag and unique sugar loaf Suilven, the most recognisable and iconic of them all. Sawtooth Stac Poleaidh is a favourite spot for energetic walkers, rewarded by a breathtaking view of the wilderness. (I did it last time I was here.)
Stop half way at the Lochinver Larder for 'the best pies in the land'.
Scourie is minuscule. There’s a fancy hotel, a couple of B and Bs and a store. Also, a credit card operated fuel pump (very expensive) and a campsite with a bar that’s open until seven and does takeaways. If you want burgers and chips. The hotel only caters for residents and I’m not one of them, so the dining options are very limited. Otherwise, you’re driving to Tarbet, a little further west, up a very twisty loch side road to the north for the Shorehouse, which is only open till seven and does mainly cold shellfish (if it’s not fully booked), or the Old School which is even further up north on the turn off to Kinlochbervie. That doesn’t stay open very late either.
Accommodation options are also limited. I turned up at my B and B at 3.20 to be told to go away and come back at four. I won’t be hurrying back to Scourie Lodge, even if it was built by the Duke of Sutherland, especially as the only breakfast choice is poached eggs.
Past the turn off to Tarbet again. You can take a ferry boat to Handa Island from here. It's home to a few puffins (who departed in early August) and plenty of guillemots, razorbills and other seabirds.
The scenery continues to be stunning. Shimmering lochans, glittering seas and the wildest of awe inspiring hillsides. It's said this is where John Lennon got the inspiration for his lyrics:
'There are places I'll remember
All my life'
Further north, off the Kinlochbervie road, past Blairmore, is the start of the walk to the ‘Best Beach in Britain’. It’s a four and half mile slog over peat moors bedecked with lochans, each with its own stripe of sand. In the distance. more gently rugged mountains form the backdrop. Today I have companions, Tim and Vicky from Barry in Wales. We chat non stop, which lengthens the walk, but also makes time go more quickly if that makes sense. It's taken two and half hours by the time we've battled our way down the steep path through the sand dunes.
Sandwood Beach, it has to be said is glorious. It's deep, enlivened with tiny rivulets that wander into the sea. There’s a small stack to one side and several softly pink striped islands, as well as a whole line of cliffs of the same hue, dividing the far reaches of the bay into coves. Awesome.. But the best beach in Britain? The jury is out. and I maybe I will have to revise my Best Beaches in the World List.
Though agreeing on the title justifies the ache in my legs as I struggle back - only an hour and a half this time. And the constraints on the amount of time you can actually spend there. Especially as it was actually hot enough to sunbathe today. Though the water is still a little too fresh for comfortable bathing - it’s good for a refreshing paddle. Unless you’re wild camping.
There are stories that a sea captain ghost has appeared to numerous walkers on this path. Though not for some time, or I would be speeding back even faster.
A little north east and I'm now on the very top of Scotland. Through the village of Durness, absolutely packed with tourists and onto Smoo Cave, just the other side. this area is packed too. it's almost impossible to find a parking space, so I drive out of town a little and pull up on a verge. It's worth the effort. It's a huge cavern, with lights inside reflecting on a lake. It was carved by a burn that still feeds it. You can get boat trips along the water and deeper into the cave, but you have to sign up on a whiteboard and the board is leady covered in names. I wasn't planning to spend all day here.
The A road swings round and I'm now traversing the very north, the top of the country. The road continues as a single track route nearly the whole way to Thurso. And this section of the NC500 continues to be extraordinarily busy. Annoyingly, there are hundreds of huge campervans. These behemoths thunder along the narrow roads taking no prisoners and refusing to reverse - it’s extremely tight when two of them meet. There’s an astonishing amount of other traffic too. At one point I have to wait while 12 cars lurch past at one passing place. It makes for a very long and frustrating journey.
The scenery here in the north is still gorgeous, but more low key than the north west coast. The mountains are low and rugged and, as I progress east, become huge curtains, with velvety folds, rising into the mist. There are further incredible swathes of golden sand, Like Ceannabeinne Beach, where there's a zip line nearly 40 metres high. It's not open, inclement weather. It’s rained all day and the frustration of missing out on views is almost as great as my exasperation with the campervans. The cloud is too thick at times to be mysterious. I just can’t see, and it's wet out there. I shouldn’t complain. I’ve been really lucky with the weather so far in Scotland.
Thurso doesn’t improve my mood. It might boast that it’s the most northerly town in the United Kingdom, but this is yet another town that isn’t sure if it’s actually open. There's a tumbledown castle, the buildings are grimly dark, the streets are deathly quiet and it’s unclear if the few bars and restaurants are serving. I find one where I’m admitted. But the food is mediocre.
The moral is not to travel this section of the NC 500 in high season - or during the time of Covid – to and lobby for the powers that be to ban campervans.
Across the rest of the top of the country to John O’Groats, the most northerly point on the mainland. It has to be done and if you get there early you will beat the crowds and can have your photo taken under the signpost. It’s happily much less touristy than Lands End, which has been bought up and turned into a theme park. Jan de Groot was a Dutchman who operated the Orkney ferry in Tudor times.
Just off the coast I can see the Orkney Islands, flat pancakes stretching into the distance.
Slightly south, and off to the far east is Duncansby Head. This is the most north easterly point on the UK mainland and, actually, the furthest point by road from Land's End in Cornwall, the most southwesterly point. There's yet another Stevenson lighthouse here, though its fenced off. It’s well worth the short walk to see the mummy and daddy and baby stacks half a mile down the coast. They’re arrestingly shaped. Giant whipped ice creams shrouded in mist.
Now, it’s definitely south; the A99 through Wick (another grimly dark town) and the A9, all the way though to Inverness again. No single track roads here, though the A9 is two way for the most part, only increasing to a dual carriageway close to Inverness.
It has to be said that the scenery is no longer fabulous. Right in the north east it’s flat and even possibly, tedious. There are some seascapes - beaches and cliffs. A (closed) museum with traditional crofting houses at Laidhay . Further south, a few gentle mountains ringed with pink rose bay willow herb. They tantalise and disappear again.
Dunrobin Castle, with its turrets, perched right on the coast, the most northerly great house in the country, beckons and is swallowed by the trees.
Dornoch is a pretty town. Here, the houses and cathedral are constructed of mellow sandstone rather than the granite of elsewhere. It’s a middle class enclave with tis championship golf course, cathedral and plate glass cafes.
A few rigs in the estuary off to the east and I’m picking up traffic again, as Inverness hoves into sight. My circle is complete.
Read more tales from Scotland here.
The Outer Hebrides (or the Western Isles) have been on my bucket list since it was first compiled and The Time of Covid presents a perfect opportunity to make the trip. This is an archipelago of some 50 islands lying off the Inner Hebrides. Fifteen of them are inhabited. They are about 210 kilometres from tip to toe, joined by a series of causeways and/or ferries. The first language in most areas is Gaelic, the terrain is mainly metamorphic rock and they are purported to be extremely beautiful.
It takes me just ten hours to drive from Brighton to Oban, known as The Gateway to the Isles. So I’m happy, but utterly exhausted. And the ten hours includes a drive alongside Loch Lomond and a stop at Luss, which claims to be the prettiest village in Scotland.
Luss may not be the prettiest village in Scotland but Oban (in the centre anyway) could be a contender for prettiest town. Kerrera Island and Mull beyond sit at the entrance to Oban Bay, creating a stunning backdrop. The houses are built in terraces up a steep hill and the centre is bursting with little cafes and shops. There's a small marina and a line of seafood stands along the quayside.
Oban’s other title is Seafood Capital of Scotland. I order mussels from The Green Shack, which is recommended on Trip Advisor. There’s a signboard advertising for a happy cheerful waiter. Judging by my reception they haven't filled the post yet. But there's a heap of perfectly cooked shellfish for a fiver. They're delicious.
The town is crowned by McCaig’s Tower. Think viaduct meets Roman amphitheatre. Though this is an enormous Victorian folly and it is interesting rather than beautiful. It’s a steep climb up to the folly for the view, which is obscured by tall undergrowth. And there’s a car park just below it. Never mind. I’m sure the exercise was good for me.
First, a day trip to the Inner Hebrides - to Mull, Staffa and Iona in one day. The view from the ferry across from Oban offers even more gorgeous views across the Bay to the Tower. The sea is like a millpond, but there's a fresh breeze and I'm really glad I remembered my parka this time. It’s the height of summer and I’m still underdressed. A lone dolphin puts in an appearance, leaping out of the wake and then disappearing again.
We round Kerrera, prettily decorated with fir covered islets, and head for Mull. It’s a dark switchback of rounded knolls sitting on the horizon. Mysterious, but not welcoming. Maybe that's because it turns out to be extraordinarily beautiful. Mull is the fourth largest island in Scotland. On arrival at Craignure, I hop on a bus to the town of Fionnphort. It takes 75 minutes looping unsteadily along single track roads that pass through the velvety folds of steep sided glens and alongside the loveliest of lochs. It’s cloudy, but the odd sparkling beam of sunlight just adds to the allure. The water in Loch Spelve is so clean that they grow the finest mussels in the country and export them by the crate. And there are castles, of course, most notably restored Duart, the home of Clan MacLean.
Next, a half hour boat trip to Staffa. We edge along some beautifully striated rosy boulders on the peninsula in the south west of Mull ( known as the Ross of Mull). It’s home to shags and seals. Then we chug out into the Atlantic. That’s when the rain puts in an appearance. But all is well. The boatmen thoughtfully provide oilskins.
Staffa too exceeds expectations. The basalt scenery is extraordinarily wonderful. Fingal’s Cave is definitely worth the trip, the ceiling supported by huge hexagonal pillars, the water translucent and turquoise. The Vikings gave it this name as its columnar basalt reminded them of their own houses, which were built from vertically placed tree-logs.
They play Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave Overture via the tannoy of course. It’s a perfect match. Mendelssohn is said to have sat in the cave listening to the waves crashing and then gone off to write his music. I'm especially glad to see Staffa after visiting the Giant's Causeway in Ireland.
There are several versions of legends attached to Fingal's Cave. According to nearly all of them the columns are the remains of a causeway across the North Channel, built by the Irish giant, Finn MacCool. He had been challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. And Fionn wanted to find a way for the two giants to meet. In one version of the story, Fionn defeats Benandonner and returns home.
In my favourite version, Fionn decides to hide from Benandonner when he realises that his foe is much bigger than he is. Fionn's wife, Sadhbh, disguises him as a baby and tucks him in a cradle. When Benandonner sees the size of the "baby", he takes fright, deducing that its father, Fionn, must be a giant among giants. He flees back to Scotland in fright, destroying the causeway behind him so that Fionn will be unable to chase him down.
Finn became Fingal (or white stranger) in an epic poem by 18th century Scots poet-historian James Macpherson. Whatever the explanation, there are identical basalt columns (a part of the same ancient lava flow) at the Giant’s Causeway.
The remainder of the tiny island is special too, with jagged cliffs and more caves and those huge, but delicately curving hexagonal formations. Though you have to negotiate a formidable set of stairs up the cliff face to get up top and hang onto a wobbly iron rail to access the cave. Both Staffa and Mull must be contenders for prettiest island in Scotland.
The island of Iona, opposite Fionnphort is famous for its abbey. This is where St Columba founded his monastery in 563 and the site was used as a base from which to spread Christianity throughout Western Europe. The earliest parts of the abbey are ancient, though it’s seen several incarnations. The Vikings were particularly unimpressed and sacked the place several times. The current version was restored by Historic Scotland relatively recently.
There's also a nunnery and the Chapel of St Oran next door to the abbey. It was built in memory of a saint who was buried alive in order to sanctify the graveyard in which it stands. The graveyard is purported to hold the graves of several Scottish kings, including Macbeth and Duncan, though no one knows precisely where they are and some scholars dispute this idea entirely. Almost next door to the chapel, in turn, is the Columba Hotel. More memorable views across the sound back to Mull, with the sun casting kaleidoscopic patterns across a shimmering sea. And tea and cakes
Even the diminutive sheep with their black faces and horns are cuter than cute. And shaggy highland cattle with their long horns too. Perfect.
My day is enlivened by friendly tourists. Andrew King, a photographer from Camberwell, is good enough to contribute a couple of photos. His are the ones with his name on the captions. You can see more of his pictures (remember he's a professional) on his Facebook page.
To my surprise, the ferry from Oban to Barra takes nearly five hours. Fortunately, the sea is not too rough, but there’s a slight swell, enough to make writing my blog a challenge. I’m entertained by several cyclists, Louise, David and Steven who are setting off to tackle the Hebridean Way. They talk for most of the voyage about all the different types of equipment they are carrying, how much it weighs and where they are going to pitch their tents. I’m glad I’ve got my car.
It’s impossible to miss Kisimul Castle as we arrive. It’s perched dramatically on a rock islet in the bay - hence the main town is called Castlebay. This three storey tower house is the ancient seat of the Clan MacNeil. It was abandoned in 1838 and fell into disrepair. It was repurchased by the MacNeils in 1937, restored and eventually leased to historic Scotland for an annual rent of one pound and a bottle of whisky.
Barra and Vatersay sit at the southern end of the island chain of the Outer Hebrides (the most southerly inhabited of the Western Isles) and are linked by a causeway. Barra is about five miles wide and eleven miles long and is covered in the main by a circular single track road. It takes me an hour to drive right round, going very slowly and taking lots of pictures. (Don’t stop for photographs in the passing places or you get shouted at).
I shouldn’t have used up my superlatives so early on. It’s stunning here – Barra-dise. I’m lucky as the weather forecasters have got it wrong again and what was supposed to be day-long heavy cloud has become a few showers and a considerable amount of sun, showing the island off to maximum advantage. Huzzah! The sea is as turquoise mixed with sapphire, the long sand dune backed beaches as powdery white, as any South Pacific lagoon. The hills are velvety emerald green with patches of purple blooming heather.
The small flat areas or plains abutting the beaches and running into the hills are known as machair. Machair is a rare habitat, (this is one of the few areas in the world where it is found) formed from lime-rich shell sand washed up thousands of years ago by the sea. So it’s very fertile and resplendent with wildflowers.
As if all of this isn’t enough the tourist highlight is the airport. Barra is the only place in the world where scheduled flights land on a beach. Two twin otters bob in and across the sandy bay from Glasgow daily – the timetable changing with the tides. I catch up with Steven and David again here (I’ve already passed them once on my circumnavigation of Barra) and we munch chocolate from their bag of goodies (cycle panniers have some uses) and wait for the planes to take off again, along with all the other photographers.
Then over the causeway to Vatersay, which is wilder, and even more remote and has three more spectacular beaches. The road runs out in the middle of the island, at a seemingly deserted village.
The ferry runs from Barra to Eriskay – a very small island with a central community centre. Apparently, Prince Charles drops in for tea sometimes. It has two other claims to fame. This is where the ship, the SS Politician ran aground in 1941, inspiring Compton Mackenzie’s book (and film) Whisky Galore. They had to blow up the ship to prevent the islanders stealing the many bottles of whisky stowed onboard in the cargo hold. There’s a disappointing modern pub called the SS Politician, which displays some souvenirs, including one of the stolen bottles.
And this is also the place where the other famous Prince Charles, Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed to begin his ill fated attempt to win the British crown back from the Hanoverian kings. The attractive curve of beach is named Prince Charlie’s Bay. Stretching things a little there’s also a unique species of convolvulus growing here, in the machair, that has been named Prince Charlie’s rose. (The seed dropped off his shoe.)
There’s a straight two mile causeway from here across to South Uist (unless you want to take the car ferry). And another mainly straight road, with very few offshoots running north - south. To the west, beaches and machair. To the east, heather covered hills, in between some peat bog. There’s also Flora MacDonald’s birthplace (in ruins) and numerous Bonnie Prince Charlie Hiding Places.
Further north are more glittering sea lochs - reserves for geese and swans.
Benbecula is probably best known for its army base. Most people treat it as a stepping stone between North and South Uist. There’s one hill in the middle. But that’s a good place to stop for lunch, beside a war memorial and to admire another shimmering loch.
North Uist is my destination, over yet another causeway. I’m setting off to circumnavigate the main roads in a clockwise direction, but almost immediately turn off too soon and am lost for over two hours. There are an abundance of lovely beaches and sand rimmed lochs, but no signposts in English. These areas are the last strongholds of Gaelic. I eventually find a Scottish Water Company man-with-a-van who kindly sets me right.
Still more gorgeous beaches, most notably Clachan Sands, and seascape vistas.
Langass is home to a Neolithic chieftain’s burial site and Langass Lodge which advertises itself as having the best food in the Hebrides. Monkfish ceviche is interesting rather than tasty. The venison with rhubarb jus definitely scores more points. I would just have liked more of it. It’s a tiny portion of meat. Ten out of ten for the Uist gin.
A quick visit over the land bridge to Berneray - which, although it’s tiny - boasts even bigger, better beaches along its western shores.
Somewhat confusingly, Harris is the southern part of the Isle of Lewis. I’ve read that before roads were built (at vast engineering expense) the mountains of Harris made it inaccessible, so it was viewed as a separate island. I arrive there on the ferry from the Isle of Berneray. It’s a breath-taking entrance - cloud enfolded mountains rise steeply and dramatically to greet us above a sea of islets. Harris is the tweed island and as you would expect there are weaving demonstrations and tweed shops signposted. Especially at Tarbert, the main town sitting on the isthmus that divides the island into North Harris and South Harris. (So three islands in one.)
South Harris has more mountains than I’ve seen for a while, but its real claim to fame is the beaches. A whole succession of magnificent golden swathes lining the coast. They’re not only pristine, but huge, reaching deep inland and lined with the spectacular machair. Most are a few hundred yards from parking areas (designated or otherwise) from where you clamber through the sand dunes. Scarista, Seilebost and most famous of all Luskentyre.
It’s a two mile stretch of difficult narrow road to reach this most sought after bay, but Luskentyre Beach actually fills the whole estuary and the tide is out. So the whole is dazzling white, riven with lustrous pools as far as the eye can see, even without the diversion. Most of the sands are dotted with groups of walkers admiring the scenery. A few hardy souls have brought windbreaks and are determined to make it a day at the seaside. It’s warm for Scotland but it’s only 17 degrees. I feel a stroll is much more appropriate.
North Harris is mountainous and famed for its unusually low lying rocky landscape - almost lunar. Some of the boulders that festoon the valleys are gigantic. It’s an amazing and frustrating drive on single track roads winding along lochsides. I can’t stop very often, though there is one good view point across to the Shiant Isles (important seabird sites). Here I stop for a half hour chat, with George, another Hebridean Way cyclist and ex-Ofsted inspector, who is making the most of the panorama, whilst eating his lunch. Mostly, however, I’m just getting glimpses of the awe inspiring views and have to motor on, craning my neck in dangerous fashion, before I pop over into Lewis.
Lewis is the largest of the Western Isles and has its own mountains in the south, yet more incredible beaches, rolling moors and flat peat bog (in the north) enlivened with thousands of sparkling lochans.
Stornoway is the main town on Lewis and the largest town in the Western Isles. Its name drives from the Norse for ‘steering bay’. It’s described as charming in some of the literature, but I’m struggling with that. Maybe it’s the effect of Covid, but it feels very quiet and rundown. There are enough tourists to make finding a meal a challenge. My kind b and b host rings around for me and finds me a table at different hotels for the three nights I’m here. Though it wouldn’t hurt me to go without I’ve ben so calorie laden since I arrived in Scotland.
There’s a small working harbour full of creel boats and some pretty parkland surrounding a recently restored Victorian ‘gothic revival style castle’. This is Lews Castle. I thought this was a spelling mistake, but I’ve checked and it isn’t. It was originally built for Sir James Matheson who bought the whole island with the proceeds from trading in Chinse opium.
Jannel is a four star B and B on the outskirts of Stornoway. It’s a twenty minute walk into town, which is good exercise, but not entirely scenic. There’s plenty of parking for when I’m feeling lazy. Spacious modern rooms, excellent breakfasts and an extraordinarily helpful host
A small road from Stornoway winds past Tolsta (it takes much less than 24 hours) and its stretches of golden sand up to Garry Beach. Backed by jaw dropping hillsides it’s yet another amazing panorama. There’s a crossing over a stream that’s been dubbed ‘the bridge to nowhere.’ At one time, there were ambitious plans to extend the route north. Instead it’s just a dead end - with swarms of teeny midges that soon infiltrate the car.
Despite its unfortunate name (I’m not going to get into any bad taste jokes here though I’m tempted, especially as there are plenty of cracks in the cliffsides) and melancholy reviews, the lighthouse and cliffs here are well worth a visit. I’m fortunate that the sun is shining on the lighthouse (another Stevenson design, but this time in brick) and the cliffs and stacks covered in wheeling seabirds. There’s a guy in a canvas chair, complete with woolly hat and gloves and binoculars, taking notes. He says he’s here for a month. On holiday. There’s also the prettiest of coves.
Further south is the Thrushel Stone, the tallest single standing stone in Scotland. At Bragar is a whalebone arch made from the jaw of a harpooned blue whale that drifted ashore and then it’s on to more historical sites.
Above yet another lovely bay is the Gearrannan Blackhouse Village. These are traditionally built drystone walled and thatched crofters cottages preserved as they were utilised in the mid twentieth century before the workers moved into the modern ‘white (cleaner) houses up the road. The houses are fascinating and utterly picturesque – Scottish chocolate box, but its not the happiest of visits. I pay £4.20 for entrance, only to discover that you can actually enter the site free as some of the cottages are now self catering rentals. The charge is actually only for the two cottages now operating as rentals. The museum is packed with tourists and its impossible to move inside. And no-one is checking the tickets.
I decide that lunch is called for and opt for the café, where the blackboard announces all manner of fishy delights. Maybe they don’t have a cloth to clean it with. Fish is off (the waiter happily announces this to everyone separately as they try to order it. I end up with an anaemic looking plate of microwaved jacket potato, cream cheese and iceberg lettuce. And then I’m overcharged.
The Neolithic standing stones at Callanish are very popular too. Like the circles at Orkney they command a great view - over Loch Roag. You can even see the Flannan Islands (of deserted lighthouse fame) 15 miles out to the west.
The chamfered stones at Callanish have a more complex arrangement than the megaliths of Stenness. These are set out in the shape of a Celtic cross, with a central circle surrounding a chamber with a cairn, marking a grave. The sun’s shadow hits the site of the grave at sunset of the Equinox. I’m wary now. Entrance to the stones alone is free, so I’ve by-passed the exhibition. As with Stenness the stones are estimated to be over 5000 years old and no-one knows exactly what their purpose is. The visitor centre can only speculate. And I’m happy to do that for myself.
Despite its name Bernera is a small, rugged island with another three mile stretch of sand, reached by a bridge from Lewis, which was the first precast concrete bridge in the country. It's currently being replaced by a giant steel structure.
The south western part of Lewis has arguably the best scenery of all. The lochs are simply gorgeous, speckled with islets and the beaches are incredible.
I’m booked on the early ferry from Stornoway to Ullapool. It’s a dull wet day and the boat is full of miserable shell shocked passengers who’ve had to get up too early on a Sunday. ( They’re lucky, they never used to run Sunday services at all.)
On the plus side the sea is calm and the boat hardly rolls as we steam across the Minch, the body of water that separates the northern Western Isles from the mainland and Skye.
Now, on to the North Coast 500.
The Orkney Islands sit about six miles off the northern coast of Scotland. But mainland Scotland isn’t called the mainland. That’s the largest island in Orkney. Mainland Scotland is ‘doon sooth’. There are about 70 islands in the archipelago (about 19 of them inhabited). They’re a great deal flatter than Shetland, as seen from the air, the grass is greener and lusher in the meadows and delightfully patterned with buttercups. The name Orkney means Seal islands, according to some sources, though this is debated People from Orkney are known as Orcadians.
Orkney is a historian’s dream. There are more archaeological sites here per square mile than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Most of these belong to prehistory. but there are also plenty of Norse remains. Orkney was annexed by Norway in 875 and only later came back to Scotland in lieu of a defaulted dowry payment in 1472
I’ve arrived by a small prop plane on Loganair from Shetland.
The Merkister Hotel is set on the banks of Loch Harray. It’s surrounded by very low banks, giving an air of wetlands. It’s a country house hotel with a reputation for fine dining. There’s a briskly efficient if not welcoming check in and an attentive manager. One member of staff goes to great lengths to find out some travel information for me. All good.
The hotel seems to have been refurbished in contemporary style as I don’t see the any evidence of the dated decoration referred to on trip advisor. I’ve a view of the loch and my room is tastefully decorated, so I’m happy with that, but there’s only just enough space to navigate round the bed. There’s no place to put my case . The ‘flat screen’ TV is a postage stamp perched high above the wardrobe. I need binoculars to see the picture. And I can’t watch on my laptop as the Wi-Fi is terrible. That’s unforgivable in this day and age. To add insult to injury there’s continuous noise from the dining room below.
The breakfast is delicious. Excellent black pudding and divine scrambled egg. But sadly, I’m struggling to see why the food at dinner gets such good reports. The dining room is full to bursting every night and I can’t get a table when I make a late decision not to go out. My dinner is not bad enough to send back, but it’s also unforgivable to charge 23 pounds for scallops and overcook them.
The all night twilight in Orkney is called the grimlins. And it’s the midsummer solstice, so the days are very long indeed. The loch is visible all night, in dusky splendour and there’s an orange pink sunset band that lasts for several hours. and now I'm off to ravel back in time.
Harray Loch is separated from Stenness Loch by a scenic causeway, the home to several Neolithic World Heritage sites and sundry solitary standing stones. The Standing Stones of Stenness are over 5,000 years old - possibly the oldest henge in the British Isles. It’s a smallish circle and only four of the original 12 or so gigantic stones, roughly six metres high, survive, with a couple of outliers. Nevertheless, the chamfered tips are extraordinarily dramatic against the blue sky that has followed me. The megaliths surround a central hearth and were originally themselves encircled by a ditch. Theories abound as to their purpose and they seem to have been associated with mystical tales and rituals over aeons. But in reality no-one is quite certain.
Just a little further up the spit (the stone age people obviously liked this area) is an even larger circle - The Ring of Brodgar. This one is the third largest henge in the UK. There are 36 out of an original 60 stones remaining here, though the stones aren’t as large as the ones at Stenness. It sits in an amphitheatre, surrounded by a huge ditch that must have taken considerable amounts of manpower to create. It’s slightly newer than Stenness at only 4,500 years old and again no-one knows what it was built for. Some theories propose that it was a lunar observatory but there’s no real proof. I’m free to come up with any idea I like as l wander around, sticking, as instructed to the path.
Further north still from the two henges, on a sandy beach at Skaill Bay, is Skara Brae, a properly ancient fishing village. Dating from 3,100 with almost intact Neolithic roundhouses it’s one of the most important sites in northern Europe. It was covered in sand by a storm 4,000 years ago and then unveiled by another storm in the nineteenth century that fortuitously blew the sand away . Who knew that the Flintstones was so accurate? The stone age peoples actually made their furniture out of stone because there was no wood. Beds, tables, a fish tank (!) and even a dresser to display their treasures. Astonishing.
Included in the ticket for Skara Brae is Skaill House, the home of the lairds of Breckness, one of whom was instrumental in exploring and promoting Skara Brae, on his doorstep. It’s a seventeenth century mansion furnished in the main for 1950s living and is fascinatingly eclectic mix of objects. One of the most interesting is a dinner service from Captain Cook’s ships, which was donated in gratitude for assistance when they landed. I’m amazed that a fine china dinner service survived at sea intact.
And I’ve learned a new word from the volunteer manning the entrance to the house. He tells me to enjoy my bimbling.
The other important Neolithic site around here is Maes Howe, a burial chamber. But it’s closed, due to Covid-19 restrictions.
These islands are renowned for stacks and blow holes. I’m not sure I’ll make it to the Old Man of Hoy - it involves car ferries and long hikes. But there are smaller stacks on West Mainland at Yesnaby, set amongst some stunning cliff scenery (not everywhere in Orkney is flat) and accessible on a coastal ramble. The largest is magnificent Yesnaby Castle, complete with arch like legs.
Islets demand to be circumnavigated and the Brough of Birsay is no exception. This one is joined to the mainland by a concrete causeway, which is rather too crumbly in parts, and which (too excitingly) is covered when the tide comes in. Deep rock pools on either side testify to this. There’s a sign on the island instructing anyone who is stranded to dial 999 for the coastguard. I hope there’s a phone signal.
There are Pictish and Norse remains just the other side of the walkway and several narrow paths to the summit of a hill and around the island. There’s a lighthouse atop the hill that looks just like the one at Esha Ness on Shetland. Unsurprisingly, it was designed by the same person, David Stevenson. There’s some lovely cliff scenery(not all of Orkney is flat), a crevice or two and a fruitless search for Tammie Nories (puffins).
I continue the puffin hunt at Marwick Head, where a mile long ascent brings me to yet another spectacular view. The 90 metre cliffs here are under the protection of the RSPB and there’s a huge colony of gannets, razorbills, fulmars, kittiwakes, skuas and guillemots, all crying, wheeling and performing for our entertainment. Presiding over the whole cacophony is the Kitchener Memorial, a tower built in memory of the war minister who died here in 1916, when his ship, on a mysterious mission to meet the tsar in Russia, encountered a landmine. Its an incredible sight, worth the haul up the slope. But Orcadian puffins are elusive.
I’m seeking rest and sustenance after all this walking, in Orkney’s second town, Stromness. It’s billed as a charming town, built in terraces, up from the sea, but it’s exceptionally quiet. Many of the shops in the long cobbled high street are shut and eateries are as difficult to find as puffins. Eventually, I discover a bistro that has chilly outdoor seating under a canopy. It’s a good place to watch the few boats in the port. And there is a ferry unloading.
There’s the remains of a round turf roofed kirk (church) at Orphir. Legend has it that it was built by The Norse Earl Haakon Paulsson as penance for murdering his cousin and co-ruler, Magnus Erlendsson. The tale is told in the Orkneyinga Saga, which relates the history of the Jarls (or earls) of Orkney and their lives in Shetland and Orkney. Scholars debate the accuracy of these tales, many of which have mystical elements,. However, they refer to a magnificent drinking hall, the Earl’s Bu, the remains of which are adjacent to the church, so parts at least are true. Magnus later became St magnus and the church was dedicated to him.
Orphir looks out over Scapa Flow, a huge natural harbour, sheltered by several islands, including Hoy. The Vikings anchored their longships here. It was the main base for the British fleet during both World Wars. At the end of the Great War, the Germans sailed their whole fleet of 74 ships into the harbour after having surrendered. They then scuttled the lot.
The best view is from the beautiful, but wind swept Scapa Beach. It looks to be a favourite spot for dog walkers.
Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, with its dark stone buildings, is particularly dull on this overcast day. Utilitarian rather than pretty. The sprinkles of fluttering bunting are not sufficient to rescue it. Kirkwall is even quieter than Stromness. It’s hard to tell if this is due to Covid, it being Sunday or if it’s always like this. Very little is open. There’s a port which looks remarkably similar to the one at Stromness and a paved high street lined with shuttered shops.
The main attraction is St Magnus Cathedral (named after aforesaid saint), which was founded in 1137. It’s built of red and yellow sandstone and is definitely the brightest thing in town. In fact, it’s known as The Light of the North. It’s the most northerly cathedral in the British Isles.
Opposite are the remains of the contemporary (to the cathedral) Bishop’s Palace. This was restored and then ruined again. It’s main claim to fame is the death of Haakon of Norway who made it this far after being defeated by Alexander III. Across the way from the Bishop’s Palace are yet more remains. This time it’s the early seventeenth century Renaissance style Earl’s Palace. This is the same Scottish Earl of Orkney who built Scalloway Castle in Shetland using slave labour – he did the same here. Most guide books refer to him as a tyrant and he met an appropriate end. He was eventually executed.
The islands’ three main supermarkets. LIDL, Tesco and the Co-Op form a line behind the Peedie Sea, which is in turn separated from the harbour by an embankment. Peedie is another great Scottish word that means little.
As in Shetland most of the roads in Orkney are single track with passing places. And there are very few parking areas or designated viewpoints, which is frustrating when I'm admiring the watery vistas. Both Shetland and Orkney also boast numerous micro distilleries for gin (still up and coming as in England) and whisky (of course) and there’s even a rum distillery outside Kirkwall. I feel it’s my duty to sample the craft gins before dinner. There are some interesting seaweed varieties.
I’ve also noticed several Orkney flags flying around the island. It’s an amalgamation of the Scottish coat of arms and the Norwegian flag and disappointingly it’s only been in use since 2007. It was the result of a flag designing competition.
Today’s another of those days when it’s alternating sun, rain and cloud. The only consistent aspect of the weather is the wind, which make stepping outside a reliably chilly affair. South across East Mainland, the road skirting the edge of Scapa Flow (no stopping places-aargh) over a mile of causeway (definitely no stopping allowed) to the tiny island of Lamb Holm. There's a chapel built by Italian prisoners taken in Africa during the Second World War. It's known as the Italian Chapel (what else ?) and was constructed out of two Nissan huts, paint and cement, with an intricately decorated facade attached. The prisoners were brought here to help construct the Churchill Barriers at Scapa Flow, after a German submarine snuck in and torpedoed HMS Royal Oak.
Next, another road over an embankment to a minuscule island, Glimps Holm, which seems to have nothing on it but grass (and sheep of course). You can glimpse however (see what I did there,) several wrecked ships from an immaculate stretch of white sand. So many beautiful beaches and so little sunbathing weather.
A further causeway to Burray Island, which has a few dwellings, mainly in Burray village, and then yet another over water road to South Ronaldsay. This is the most southerly of the inhabited islands. (Oddly, there's a North Ronaldsay too, the most northerly Orkney island, famous for its lamb, which has a unique flavour, as the sheep feed on seaweed. They're kept away from the grassy meadows by purpose built dykes.
In a northerly bay in South Ronaldsay is a quaint village, named St Margaret's Hope. It has a population of 550 people and still comes in at third largest settlement in Orkney. This is where they brought the body of the seven year old, so called Maid of Norway, the Queen of Scotland. She died at sea on her way to marry Prince Edward in 1290 and thus ( in theory) unite England, Scotland and Norway.
At Burwick on the southern-most tip of South Ronaldsay, I'm six miles from John O'Groats. There are a few old stone houses, a small church and a couple of fishing boats moored on a gusty bay. It’s not really a place to linger.
The Shetland Islands are the farthest point north in Great Britain. There are about 100 islands in the archipelago (about 15 of them inhabited), so far from the mainland they’re almost half-way to Norway and lie on the same latitude as part of Greenland. They’ve even been owned by Norway for part of their history. So there’s, as you would expect, a great deal of Viking or Norse heritage. I’ve read that the climate, on the other hand is not as cold as you would expect, this far north, thanks to the warming of the Gulf Stream. But it’s windy, and it rains quite a lot. It might be called the Shetland Isles on the map, but as far as the Scots are concerned this is simply ‘Shetland’.
This is the also the furthest I can travel away from home during the Covid-19 crisis without being threatened with quarantine when I get home. It’s taken two aeroplanes, via Edinburgh. The second was a small Saab prop plane, but thankfully an uneventful journey. And no catering event either.
True to form, it’s raining when I arrive on the main island (pragmatically known as Mainland) and sadly, I have no coat. There was a heatwave in Brighton on the south coast when I left and I forgot to sling my parka in the car, as intended. I have a hired Citigo Skoda and I’ve discovered that my hotel, at Brae, in north Mainland is an hour’s drive away. Shetland is bigger than I thought.
Before I can get away I have to drive across the airport runway. Then I’m navigating through mist on narrow roads, which are fortunately empty for the most part. There are ethereal glimpses of shimmery water and mossy patches of hillside. Otherwise I can see nothing.
Busta House is a proper country house hotel set on the banks of a sea loch just outside Brae. It’s advertised as having sea views, though you have to stand up and peer through the trees to see much of the view. Nevertheless, it’s a great location and has gorgeous terraced gardens.
It’s a huge place with a beautiful lounge and heaps of atmosphere. There’s an elegant long room in the oldest part of the house where you can sip your cocktails. It’s very busy - the dining room is bustling. The staff are really friendly and helpful and the food, if not haute cuisine, is local and well presented. Its described as hearty and that’s the perfect word. Or you can have a fish and chip meal in the most northerly fish and chip shop in the British Isles - Frankie’s at Brae.
Busta House has a complicated and interesting history. There’s a glassed in section of wall in my room that covers calligraphy from earlier times -parts of the building date back to the sixteenth century. It was built by the Gifford family. Barbara, the eighteenth century cruelly treated wife (secretly married) of one of the sons of the family, is said to haunt the place. She has, apparently, been seen by several guests. I hope I’m not one of them.
It’s ‘da simmer dim’ -all night twilight- and sleeping is a little odd. But in the morning I can see blue sky out of the window, so I’m setting off to make the most of it. First, an unintentional detour into Muckle Roe, an island off the west coast joined to Mainland by a bridge. It’s a serendipitous delight. It turns out to be one of the designated national scenic areas that are confusingly lumped under one Shetland umbrella, even though they are dotted throughout the islands.
Shetland reminds me of the Faroe Islands (unsurprisingly). It’s less dramatic- the highest points can best be described as rolling hills rather than mountains. It’s charm lies in the many snaking sea inlets, known here as voes. They are not quite fjords, their sides are less steep. These are the deepest sapphire lined with emerald billiard table grass and dotted with minuscule islets. On the banks, traditional stone houses patterned with tangerine lichen (some derelict crofters cottages) mixed with more modern Nordic style blood red wood dwellings. The whole is beautifully illustrated at Muckle Roe. This brilliant name actual means Big Red Island, as it’s composed of red granite.
Over Mavis Grind (the names are just amazing) a narrow strip of land holding onto north mainland, where you can throw a pebble into the North Sea on one side and the Atlantic on the other. Apparently fishermen have been known to drag their boats from one side to the other to save sailing around the island. There’s even a sign warning of otters crossing, though sadly I can’t see one. The land beyond here is known as Northmavine and it’s wild and glorious.
The weather is changing every five minutes. Rain, cloud, sun. But the wind is unrelenting. I’m winding north on single track roads with passing places, and cattle grids and again thankfully, very little traffic. It’s more of a challenge avoiding the ubiquitous sheep who nip across the road at every opportunity. The lambs are still small and are delightful. But not as cute as the tiny Shetland foals with their thick bristly manes.
The Citigo automatic doesn't live up to its name in any way. It certainly doesn't go. I have to rev really hard on hills in reverse to stop it going forwards instead. And it really doesn't like changing gear. Anything up hill is a struggle so I’m bumping along and looking for parking spaces that are relatively flat if I want to stop. And I’m doing that a lot, to take photos of all the great scenery, during the sunny intervals.
The coast around Esha Ness is renowned for its rock formations. A group of tall pencil like rocks is known as Da Drongs. (‘Da’ is often used as a substitute for ‘the’ in Shetland it seems). The best view of the larger stacks and holes in the area is around Esha Ness lighthouse, which was designed by David, one of the Stevenson family. The most well known Stevenson is Robert Louis, who apparently got the ideas for Treasure Island and Kidnapped by accompanying his relatives on their journeys to wild and out of the way places to design lighthouses.
The cliffs here have been immortalised in the titles of the TV detective series, Shetland, which I’ve been watching avidly to get a flavours of the islands. The Shetland tourist office are obviously in two minds about whether the publicity is a good thing. There’s a piece on their website saying that Shetland is not really like the series and that crime rates are low.
The sun is obliging and there are great views of the stacks with the light glinting on the sea spray. It’s competition for Australia’s Twelve Apostles. Esha Ness is a giant volcanic plug, with layers of ash and lava and erosion has given rise to a giant finger of a chasm pointing inland, which provides welcome shelter for many seabird nests. They wheel above as I wander alongside. Not too close. It’s still very windy.
Just down the coast at Stenness (Stone House) are the ruins of an old fishing port and supposedly agates on the beach. Sadly, I can’t see any, but there are good views of a doorway arch, appropriately called Dore Holm; this is stubbornly shrouded in mist.
More wiggling, along a seven mile voe (this one is deep enough to qualify as a fjord) nestling below the highest hill on Shetland, Ronas Hill. At 450 metres Ronas Hill doesn’t count as a mountain (600 metres is necessary) but is classed as a Marilyn (over 150 metres). It’s starkly beautiful here. Not a tree in sight on the steep wind lashed slopes. Then up the main north – south ‘highway’, with multitudes of passing places and views of colourful fishing ports and neat enclosed cemeteries. It peters out at a farm gate at Isbister, just past North Roe Village.
Today it’s overcast (at least it’s not raining) so I’m heading to the middle of Mainland There are many more cars going south. Well, all the tourists staying at Busta House must be going somewhere. Here in the middle of Mainland there are wide valleys penned in by parallel ridges. The peaks are tobacco coloured, peat bog riven with fissures, an ancient leather sofa worn and frayed.
The road teeters along the hilltops and sweeps down into the pea green lowland areas. These are sprinkled with houses and there are even a few robust trees, branches swaying forbearingly. There are plenty more sheep, of course, mainly now behind fencing. The climate doesn’t encourage agriculture. And the sea is ever present. Nowhere in Shetland is more than a couple of miles from the sea and there are constant glimpses of iridescent water in the voes and out to the islands. Bobbing trails of salmon disappear into the distance.
Lerwick has been the capital since 1708 and is home to over half the Shetlanders. Once through the sprawling docks and warehouses on the outskirts of town, it’s a charming little place bestrewn with bunting and offering plenty of little souvenir shops and cafes. Above the harbour there’s Fort Charlotte, which was first built in the time of Cromwell or Charles II depending on who you believe, but it now in its third incarnation after altercations with the Dutch. This edition has replica Napoleonic cannons and good views across to the island of Bressay.The town centre radiates from the small central port, the high street surprisingly modern, though winding narrow side streets and flights of stone steps testify to its fishing history. There’s even ‘Da Harbour Chippy’
There’s a sign on the road, to the south of the town centre, advising that parking and access is restricted due to filming for the TV series. But there's no sign of Douglas Henshall or his henchmen. The picturesque cottage that doubles as Jimmy Perez’ home is down here though, next to the pocket sized perfect little sand beach with crystal clear water, that he strolls on. It must be a nice place to live.. when it’s sunny.
Driving out of Lerwick I spot actor Mark Bonnar walking into the police station. And a whole row of cameras and crew. So they are filming today. I stop to watch and am politely cajoled for intruding into the shot. I expect they’ll cut that bit.
Shetland is well known for its brochs, which are stone built iron age mini castles. Archaeologists are unsure about their purpose but they are incredibly old roundhouse buildings. The Broch of Clickimin is a surprisingly complex broch that has been restored. The original broch was built about 2000 years ago. It stands on a small islet in Loch Clickimin, on the outskirts of town and is approached over a stone causeway.
Scalloway is the ancient capital of Shetland, (it dates back to prehistoric times) on the other side of Mainland – it takes six minutes to get there. Today it’s the second town in the islands - a small very quiet port. The castle was built by the infamous Earl of Orkney using slave labour, but it’s very definitely closed. It’s covered in scaffolding. The adjacent museum is also closed. Apparently there are fascinating exhibits about the Norwegian Bus. They used small boats on clandestine operations (mainly evacuations) to Norway after the Germans invaded in the Second World War. It was dangerous work. Forty four men had died by early 1943, leading to the fishing boats being replaced by ‘sub-chasers’, fast armed patrol boats borrowed from the US navy.
There’s also a haa – an old manor house belonging to the laird. This is Muckle Haa and it has an attached tumbledown stone cottage. Both have history according to local information boards. As does gaily painted New Street alongside the port.
Close by Scalloway, stone bridges lead to several scenic islands. First, Trondra and then East and West Burra almost split down the middle by the voes. The bridges are one track, so you have to keep your eyes peeled. I’m trying not get diverted by the gorgeous views across myriads of low islets. At the bottom of West Burra (another section of the Shetland Scenic Area) is Minn Beach. The white sand isthmus is a so-called tombolo, linking West Burra to Kettla Ness, home to arctic terns and seals. The whole forms a spectacular bay, with craggy pillars at the entrance. It’s a great end to the day’s adventures.
My Mousa Island trip is an excellent way to spend a day. Mousa means moss in Norse and is pronounced Moose, like the dessert, not cats who chase rodents. Mousa Island is owned by the laird of Sandwick – he lives in the huge manor house by the boat pier. The ferry takes 15 minutes and there’s a trail that leads around the island. I have almost three hours to walk it.
That's far too long for the distance involved, but there are gorgeous views round every corner and it’s worth taking time over. The sun is shining, the sea is impossibly blue and the clouds are carving intricate patterns above the picturesque stone walls weaving across the hillsides. There are signs warning that the slabs should not be sat on.
This is where tens of thousands of storm petrels nest. They return to roost at dusk which is currently about 10.30 at night and they run boat trips out to see them at double the cost of this day trip. There's clearly high demand. They're booked out this week. In addition to avoiding upsetting storm petrels (and shouting 'I’d rather have a gannet ripple') I’m also keeping a sharp eye out for the Arctic terns wheeling. I remember what happened when I went too close to their nests in Svalbard..
There are plenty of other seabirds nesting on the crags to admire. Rocks tilted on their sides like scales - a giant armadillo. And there are seals keeping a wary distance on a sandy scoop of beach.
It's a thoroughly enjoyable walk, even discounting the broch which is allegedly the highlight. It’s certainly photogenic in its lonely position on the cliff edge. But it's closed inside due to social distancing restrictions and I can't climb to the top. It’s promoted as bring the best example of a broch in the UK. At 13 metres it's taller than the one at Clickimin and unrestored. It’s one of a pair of brochs guarding Mousa Sound. Its twin at Burland on the Mainland is far less well preserved. Locals often purloined the stones from brochs for croft building.
Half an hour to ( almost) bask in the sunshine before returning to Mainland. The captain regales me with stories of missing passengers on past trips. And there’s a seal waiting on the jetty to welcome us when we return.
I’ve saved the top billed Shetland attractions for my last day, which is gloriously sunny to suit the occasion. I’m down to my tee shirt and that’s almost unheard of in Shetland. First, Sumburgh Head on the southern tip of Mainland, back across the airport runway. There’s a lighthouse with attached exhibitions, on the top of the cliffs above some more powdery white sweeps of beaches. but this isn’t the main draw.
Nestling in burrows atop the sheer rocks are a proliferation of puffins. They’re popping up everywhere amongst the candyfloss thrift and yellow vetch, solemn, droll and gorgeous. Definitely my favourite bird with their incredibly painted bills and comic clown like waddling. The collective noun is a circus - which is perfect. Their homes are puffinries and their babies are pufflings, which is beyond perfect. In this part of the world they’re also known as Tammie Nories.
Just along the coast is one of the most important archaeological sites in the country at Jarlshof. It’s a series of layered ruined and abandoned settlements, the oldest dating back over 4,000 years to Neolithic/Bronze Age times. The most recent ruin is a Victorian manor house, which Walter Scott dubbed Jarlshof in his 1821 novel, The Pirate, giving the place its name. In-between, Pictish wheelhouses, a Viking longhouse, and a medieval farmhouse. The ruins are all jumbled together with some explanatory signboards. Congratulations to the archaeologists for sorting this lot out.
And another day in Shetland, another island. This one is St Ninian’s Isle, reached via one more of the splendid sand tombolos. The guide books say I should walk round the island, so I set off as demanded. But that’s where the instructions end,
There are the most incredible views of jagged rock formations and the foaming lapis sea. It’s a contender for one of the most scenic walks ever. But there is very little in the way of signposting . It takes me three hours to circumnavigate the island, by the time I have followed a series of narrow tracks (often perilously close to the cliff edge), to keep arriving at dead ends (literally if I kept going over the edge) and having to re-trace my steps back towards the middle of the islet. Thankfully, the weather is gorgeous and the changing panoramas so lovely that it doesn’t matter at all.
Next stop Orkney.
Don’t take any notice of the weather forecasts. They are invariably wrong, and thankfully, it’s often brighter than expected. But the weather can change literally every minute, from showers, to cloud to sun. When it’s sunny the scenery is glorious. When it’s dull the mountains are mysterious and melancholy. It’s very atmospheric. But getting soaked isn’t much fun. So be prepared at all times.
Scotland is notorious for midges - tiny pesky little insects. Their bite is infuriatingly itchy and during their short summer breeding season they can descend in droves. You might want to take a hat with netting attached (or an Australian type hat with bobbing corks) just in case. Keep your eyes peeled and head the other way if you spot them. I don’t find that they take much notice of insect repellent, though you can try. They’re sadly capable of penetrating cotton T shirts with their bites. And apparently they love dark colours, so dress accordingly.
You need a car in Scotland (and especially the islands ) if you’re not on a tour. (Unless you’re hardy and you’re cycling). It pays to take it slow – single track roads with passing places are common and some of the roads are precarious switchbacks with precipitous drops. Reversing up them if you meet another vehicle isn’t much fun.
Keep an eye on the petrol gauge. Fuelling stations are few and far between. Many are 24 hour unmanned pumps which operate using credit cards. So make sure you have one.
Know where you are going and keep a map close at hand. There is very little phone signal in many areas (especially in the southern Western isles and wilderness of the Highlands), so you won’t be getting any GPS. Off the major roads the signposting may be non existent and (in the islands) what there is may only be written in Scottish Gaelic. Fortunately, the local people are very helpful if you get lost!
The ferries, mostly operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac), are punctual and the staff friendly (for the most part) and tolerant of anxious driving. But make sure you book in advance and are punctual. They re very busy in the high season and if you’re not there when you’re supposed to be you may get bumped. And sometimes there’s only one boat a day. You can get a Hopscotch Ticket that takes you through all the Western Isles from Oban to Ullapool (4 crossings in all). Many of the islands are now linked by causeways or bridges.
You are not allowed to stay in your vehicle on any of the longer crossings – and it’s much nicer to get out and see the views. There are often dolphins and seals to be spotted. Though it may be very blustery. Take a coat or sit in the café. On shorter crossings some folk opt to stay in their cars (and indeed were forced to during the worst Covid times) but I wouldn’t entertain the idea, unless obliged to. You can’t see out and the rolling feels much worse down in the bottom. It’s a recipe for sea sickness. And be prepared for your car to get doused with sea spray on any of the smaller boats. But don’t worry. It will rain soon and that will wash it off.
The Scots are still very strict about regulations around Covid. Mask wearing is expected in any public indoor space, including all shops and transport. You have to sign in on Track and Trace or leave your details. And there’s sanitising spray everywhere.
The food in the islands is on the expensive side and varies from plentiful fish and chip shops (mostly haddock), seafood shacks ( many now closed or with limited hours due to Covid), to pubs and fine dining. Most feature salmon, smoked haddock (as in Cullen Skink soup) shellfish, haggis and venison.
The Scots are notorious historically for their less than healthy diets and there’s still quite a lot of fried food around. The breakfasts are filling and all feature Stornoway black pudding, which is delicious, but doesn’t sit easily with my digestion. There’s also plenty of complimentary shortbread.
Whisky distilleries abound – all eager to take tourists with money on tasting tours. But there’s also an increasing number of gin distilleries - some of their offerings are exceptionally pleasant.
The Scots love live music – usually bands with a fiddle and many pubs provide entertainment of this kind - though sadly restricted at the moment because of Covid. Hotels and restaurants sometimes substitute recordings instead. And if you’re very unlucky you’ll get the bagpipes with their distinctive lilt (or wail depending on your point of view) too.
Glasgow is the most populous city in Scotland, with an estimated population of 635,640. At its height in Victorian times, Glasgow was double that size and even sometimes referred to as the "Second City of the British Empire".
It grew from a small rural settlement on the River Clyde to become a medieval bishopric and royal burgh, with the University of Glasgow established in the fifteenth century. From the eighteenth century onwards, the city then expanded, as one of Great Britain's main hubs of transatlantic trade. The onset of the Industrial Revolution led to Glasgow becoming a centre for chemicals, textiles and engineering; most notably in the shipbuilding and marine engineering industry.
On further journeys a much renovated Glasgow over recent years became a favourite, especially for the Rennie Mackintosh architecture and tea room. Sadly the art school was badly damaged by fire for the second time recently. You still have to navigate the dialect (have you read Swing, Hammer Swing?), but it’s a bustling and friendly place.
It’s the scenery beyond here that is my very favourite. The stark beauty of the north west is just breath-taking, beautiful white beaches, islets, puffins, wild loch scenery (Torridon is wonderful) and Suilven raising its bleak brown head to crown it all. This part of Scotland is included in the North Coast 500 Route which I drove.
A longish ferry journey away are the Wondrous Western Isles.
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