Lochs, Tors, and a Highland Coo

Exploring Scotland’s Glen Coe, Isle of Skye, and Cairngorms National Park where we meet Archie.

Renting a car in Britain, one would expect the navigation system to speak English. In our case, since we rented a small Mercedes, German would not have been unexpected, either. What we didn’t anticipate was the bloody thing speaking French and absolutely refusing to switch to another language. While Simon was trying to figure out the car’s over-engineered steering wheel buttons and levers, Steve was working on the navigation system, and I was handed the car’s manual to add some facts to the fun. We fiddled with the electronics for a while but the boys dropped all of that after they found the seat heat. So while the front row happily enjoyed their toasty warm buns, I was tasked with navigation the analog way – by using the paper map I’d bought at the tourist info desk at Glasgow airport.

We had landed in Glasgow this morning at half eight – that’s half past eight for the uninitiated – and the skies that greeted us were expectedly overcast. Now, the occasional drizzle has followed us north. The scenery is wet but not at all dreary, the atmosphere quite appropriate. I’m busy on the backseat, fighting with the map. Fully expanded, it measures about four by six feet. It’s printed on both sides, with the Isle of Skye on one side, Glasgow on the other. Both pages are printed with north pointing to the same edge. This means I can’t just turn it over to read it. Instead, I have to turn it around every time a road goes over the map’s edge. There is little space to maneuver, so I have to fold down, turn around, fold open, and follow the road on the other side. Nope, this one doesn’t go to Sky. Fold down, start over.

I wrestle with the map for a while then I tear the darn thing into smaller, more manageable pieces. There, that’s what you get for your trouble, you niggly piece of geographic paper. I can’t quite match anything up anymore but I feel much calmer for proving who’s boss on the backseat and decide to simply enjoy the scenery. The initial stretch along Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park is pleasant. We pass gentle hills, covered by lush green grass and sporadically dotted by small herds of cow or sheep. Occasional patches of dark trees break it all up. While appreciating the Gaelic scenery shrouded in Gaelic weather, I keep track of our location by matching the very Gaelic town names with those on the map. We pass Aldochlay, Crianlarich, and Torrlaoighseach. Something like that. It takes a little less time to find the lakes we pass, there’s Loch Linnhe, and Lochan na h-Achlaise, and then Loch Lochy. Cute. I figure the Scottish word ‘loch’ comes from the same Old Germanic word, meaning ‘hole’ or ‘hole in the ground’. When I look it up I find no such explanation, however. I learn that a loch is simply the Gaelic word for lake. If the lake or loch is open to the ocean it’s a sea loch, and a smaller lake is called a lochan.

Not to dwell on the weather, but somehow we get into a routine of stopping for a cup of hot tea because that is what you do when you’re surrounded by wet cold drizzle. It doesn’t take long for the tea to kick in which inevitably leads to a bathroom break. Pretty soon you’re caught in this loop of needing hot tea to warm up enough to make it back to the car, driving for a while, having to get rid of the tea, and bracing for the outdoor sprint by drinking more tea. So we work our way north in this measured way, enjoying the magic of foggy hills and mystic falls and countless cups of tea.

Overall, the landscape is restrained in its topography and bears witness to Scotland’s recent glacial past. There aren’t any tall mountains or deep valleys. Over thousands of years, rivers of ice eroded anything that might have once stood much above four thousand feet. These moraines of scoured rocks and sediments were redistributed downslope, filling any ancient valleys. Afterward, when the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age, they left behind their footprints in the form of long lines of rocks and gravel. Today, we’re surrounded by innumerable hills, all of them too small to be called a mountain, yet taller than a knoll. Their names are mindboggling. Reading them, it seems inconceivable how they can possibly be sounded out. Pick up a handful of Scrabble pieces and line them up at random and every single time you’ll get something simpler than Meall a’Bhuiridh, Sron a’Choire Ghairbh, or Sgurr Fhuaran.

It’s been a scenic drive so far but nothing compares to the verdant hills of the Glen Coe. Having utilized several of the pages of my now reasonably sized map collection, we reach this area after a mere three hours. The road makes a westerly turn, and the landscape changes and becomes more dramatic. The hills are taller and more distinct, the drizzle has turned into a mild rain and the waterfalls and streams outnumber those in Waimea Canyon. Nature has scattered every shade of green, adding depth and drama to the land surrounding the craggy granite outcrops so generously sprinkled across the Highlands. Occasional tufts of fog add a layer of mystery as we pass small lochs, isolated cottages, and small bridges over even smaller streams. The main roads in Scotland are two-lane and rather narrow, flanked by grass and muddy patches and it’s almost impossible to find a safe spot to pull over. It seems no plans have been made to widen the original roads built for carriages or horse wagons. It’s raining harder now and when we do stop for some pictures, my camera and I get soaked. But what a view. We continue on to the Glencoe Mountain lodge, as it’s been a while, maybe as much as an hour, since we’ve had tea.

At South Ballachulish, we cross Loch Leven and turn north again, past Fort William. To the east looms Ben Nevis, or Beinn Nibheis in Gaelic, at a bit over four thousand feet, it’s the highest mountain in all of Britain. I’m looking at the geology guide to Ben Nevis, which I bought earlier and to my surprise I find that I’m looking at a collapsed volcano. Not long after, we reach Invergarry, where we swing left and take A87 west, past Glen Garry forest, past A’Chralaig, a small mountain and on, past the town of Dornie.

We take the bridge over Loch Long and stop at Eilean Donan Castle, which is nestled at the confluence of Loch Alsh, Loch Long and Loch Duich. It’s raining again and the sky is hidden behind a layer of fog. We can see the castle but nothing beyond. There is no background or far ground, just what’s immediately in front. It’s a bit surreal; the world is ending just a few hundred yards away in a wall of soft white cotton. The temperature is comfortable and the atmosphere feels cozy, despite the rain. I make a few pictures and we continue on, over the sole bridge to Skye.

Kyleakin is the first town we reach on the island. Most stores and restaurants are closed, and it looks somewhat deserted. There is less light because of the fog and rain and it feels much later than it is. We see NO VACANCY signs everywhere. The season must have ended and the town has shut down for the winter. It’s the same story in the next town, and the one after that. By the time we reach Portree, the main town on Skye, we see plenty of people and cars. What a relief, the season must still be going on in this area. Still, we see NO VACANCY signs everywhere. Simon and Steve walk into one of the many Inns and investigate. We’re told that the island has been booked solid since March. The concierge suggests we keep on driving north.

A look at the map reveals a string of towns along the northern end of the peninsula, so we hop back in the car and continue on. I loose count of all the NO VACANCY signs we pass but I do tally nine places, where we stop to inquired about availability. Everywhere the same story, the island has been booked solid because people don’t want to travel far these days. We decide to continue rather than returning to the mainland. There’s no shortage of B&Bs, just a shortage of availability. After many unsuccessful inquiries, Simon and I send Steve into the Ferry Inn at Uig. He is gone for a while and we become hopeful. We need a bathroom break and it’s been a while since we had tea so I go inside to see what’s happening. Steve greets me with a smile and a nod. We have rooms, just waiting for directions. What a relief. I turn to go tell Simon but he’s already walking in. Overjoyed at the great news he turns to the barkeep and buys seven bottles of Peroni to take with.

We get directions and set off, across the mountain, to Staffin on the other side of the peninsula. There is some daylight left and the drive is phenomenal. We see a few campers here and there, tucked in, off the road, some with a small fire burning, and we think about the amazing view they’ll wake up to. We drive along a muddy dirt road that is periodically blocked by sheep that have no intention to make way. It’s slow progress but finally we reach our B&B. I don’t know how anybody can possibly get here without clear directions. As we pull in, our hostess comes outside to welcome us. Dianne is warm and friendly and when she speaks the words roll and trip in the most delightful way. Every vowel is soft and round and long, the consonants are well worn and the rough notes have been smoothed over time. The words tumble out in a pleasant melody and I don’t want her to stop talking. Despite the late hour, she’s curious about us and asks about our day, where we’re from, how long we’ve traveled. Simon and Steve take turns answering but I’m only interested in hearing her voice. She’s wonderful and so is her house. She leads us upstairs, under the roof, where we find two identical rooms with en suites. Everything is simple, modern, welcoming and immaculate. After Dianne leaves us for the night we break out the beers and celebrate our good fortune.

Breakfast starts with coffee, tea and Highland porridge. I’m not usually a fan of porridge, Highland or otherwise, but this is simply delicious. Next to us is a small credenza loaded with muesli, fresh fruit, jams, and cereals. I pick out some fruit while Dianne brings out the next course: fresh smoked salmon, fluffy scrambled eggs, and warm, deliciously flaky croissants. We’re in heaven, the three of us.

We pack, load the car, and settle up with Dianne. The plan is to hike up to the Old Man of Storr, a volcanic peak overlooking the northeastern shore of Skye. Along the way, we notice lots of cars turning into a small lot and decide to check it out. There are a few dinosaur info signs and then, stepping up to a railing, high over the coast, we see what’s the draw. A tall, narrow waterfall runs down to a beach full of boulders. In the background we see a wall of columnar basalt. A small rainbow dances below, created by the spray where the fall hits the beach. I’m thrilled we didn’t miss this. I wedge my tripod up to the railing and start shooting pictures until a group of geology students crowd me out.

We have sunshine and blue skies today, much in contrast to yesterday’s drizzles and showers. We continue to the next parking lot and squeeze in. Cameras, tripod, food and water loaded, we set out to hike up the trail to the Old Man. We’ve found another incredible spot on this island of surprises. The hike starts out mellow enough. There are gates to navigate with complex locking mechanisms lest the cows figure it out. An informational sign explains the many large piles of dry branches. An environmental group has started to clear the area of invasive pine trees to make room for more native vegetation. So now it’s mostly grassland and a trail that in some places is so muddy you have to walk on the side. I lecture Steve and Simon on the environmental perils of walking off trail when it gets really wet and grubby and I have to jump from rock to rock to avoid sinking in and getting stuck. Finally, I give up and help stomp a new trail.

We make our way up towards the towering rocks for which the area is named. This is the land of breathtaking vistas, massive chunks of basalt looming ahead, the greenest of green meadows on both flanks, and downhill tall cliffs leading to the sea far below. We find some boulders to rest on and take it all in. As I’m looking more closely at the rock we’ve claimed I cannot help but marvel at its origins. Scotland is the cradle of modern geology and Isle of Skye has plenty of it.

The story here begins three billion years ago when the oldest rocks on the island formed. Cycles of mountain building and erosion came and went until the time the dinosaurs went extinct. Sixty five million years ago, the Earth became very active, the mantel was in need of releasing heat and energy and the crust tore apart so violently it separated Greenland from Europe, and North America from Africa. Through large cracks in the crust, hot magma escaped and flooded the land, for millions of years. Volcanoes and flood basalts, some of which have, at least partially, resisted weathering and erosion, covered most of Skye. Not much has happened since. The land has stretched a bit, the rocks have tilted somewhat, valleys have formed, and the ice ages have come and gone and reshaped the surface some more. And now, sitting on a boulder, which has clearly come from the same formation as the tall basalt spires behind us, I try to get a feel for the massive chunk of Earth history that has played out among the landscape that we see today.

We continue to hike around huge blocks and pinnacles of basalt, which have come down the mountain in enormous landslides over many years. The Tertiary basalt is much heavier than the Jurassic sedimentary rocks underneath so the whole mountainside routinely collapses its way toward the coast. This cycle of breaking and moving of rocks has formed the awesome area of the Quirang with the Old Man of Storr the star of the show. I’m loath to leave. As a matter of fact, I wish I had a tent. Alas, we planned to spend the next night in Inverness so leave we must. We hike down on a different trail, one that lies farther north and we come to a small body of water. I look down and see a reflection of the Old Man and I make a promise to myself to return one day.

On the way to the mainland we pass through Portree again, buy food, change money, and make a reservation for the night. Farther south, we pass a bridge at the foot of another mountainous area and we stop so I can make more memories. We’re at the foot of the Cuillin, the remnant of a large, eroded volcano that will require a day or two to explore all by itself. I look up at the dark gabbro on the horizon and make another promise. Skye turned out to be full of amazing surprises around every corner and I can’t wait to come back and do it justice.

Spending the night in Inverness was the only low part of our Scotland discovery. We’re staying at another B&B but this is the kind that might star in a Hitchcock movie. Karen, the hostess, is troubled by our arrival despite us having a reservation. Perhaps we showed up a bit late. Simon and I fill in the breakfast cards. Steve is mesmerized by the white roots of Karen’s otherwise black hair. The house is dark and a bit stuffy. The decoration consists of roses and anything to do with hunting. Long, thick, pink curtains cover the windows, suffocating any light that may want to penetrate. The matching bedspreads will probably be great come winter. The dark green carpet may have been here since the first Hanoverian ascended the British throne. Maybe the rest of the furnishings, too. Maybe the whole place, including the hosts.

For breakfast we order porridge again but this time it’s salted and Simon is quite put out. Apparently, good porridge never tastes salty, contrary to what our host declares after taking away our plates. Our fabulous place on Skye is a hard act to follow and the Inverness B&B doesn’t come close. Things turn better quickly. I have my first encounter with a small herd of Highland Coo and I’m absolutely delighted. I call to the unkempt bovines with lot’s of encouraging requests to turn and look my way. These cows look marvelous, but they aren’t very obliging when it comes to getting their portraits taken. It’s great fun to watch them peer through their dense bangs looking for juicy grass.

Day three of our Scotland trip brings us to Loch Ness, where Steve undertakes a fruitless search for Nessie. We educate ourselves at the Loch Ness Information Center and Museum in the town of Drumnadrochit and walk away almost convinced that all of the very many people who have reported a sighting were either mistaken or outright lied.

Steve has this thing about taking a dunk in every body of water he visits, so we drive back and forth to find an entry point to Loch Ness. Every time we see the lake shore the road is either too high above the lake to get down to or we’re on a private access road. Trespassing, it turns out, is something Simon is vehemently opposed to. I find myself much less bothered by this stinginess of access, seeing as this is a country where the police are generally not armed and regular citizens aren’t even permitted to carry a knife. But Simon stands firm, ever the English gentleman, and we have to make do with the canal at the eastern end of Loch Ness, from where tourist boats conduct Nessie discovery trips. Steve sticks one foot into very cold water, I hand him a towel, and we’re off.

We enter Cairngorms National Park and it reminds me a little of Dartmoor but not too much, just in terms of the tors and hills and the sprinklings of small villages that are common to both parks. Cairngorms is different in that it has forests with great stands of pines, and lot’s of sheep. We haven’t gotten far when Simon spots the biggest, baddest Coo, yet. We U-turn and I jump out and walk to the fence to get a good look at this guy with massive horns as wide as the two-lane road we came on. I move to another spot along the fence, where I can look at him eye-to-eye and start clicking away. He lifts his massive horned head, peers at me, and ever so slowly comes up on his legs. For several moments he just stands there while I continue to shoot. When he starts moving I’m ecstatic even though I’m having a hard time adjusting the framing to include his extra wide horns. It’s not like the ground is trembling while he walks but there is something quite powerful and majestic about him. I feel small and insignificant and I start to wonder if he’s bothered by my presence. He keeps coming at me until he’s right up at the fence, looking like he’s going to climb over and join me. Now I’m starting to freak out a bit because he’s so massive, he could probably keep walking right through the fence without ever noticing something was in his way and I’m thinking maybe I made him mad, maybe he didn’t get up to pose for me, maybe he got up to scare me away so I’d leave him alone. He’s standing right in front of me, still looking me in the eye, the fence between us solid to me but surely pieces of straw to him, a busy road behind me so I can’t back up, and he looks at me again and now I’m frozen solid, my legs won’t move anymore and then he starts swinging his massive head with those insane horns and I think he wants to gore me but my legs have gone stiff and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to move again, and then, suddenly, a grunt and a scraping sound and I realize he’s scratching his head on the barbed wire that’s wound around the wire that’s stretched between the wooden fence stakes and he’s doing it with gusto and not even paying any attention to me anymore even though I’m standing less than half the length of his horns away from him.

When my legs start working again, I slink back to the car, pretending my heart wasn’t beating so loud that I couldn’t even hear the passing cars anymore, like I’d just hung around to enjoy the show. Simon and Steve are standing near the other side of the fence, oblivious, reading a sign that states that this is Archie, a very old and very retired Highland Coo, here to delight the visitors to Cairngorms Manor and to come inside and enjoy some tea after saying hello to good old Archie.

I’m uncharacteristically quiet during the drive up to the Manor but the boys aren’t the observant kind. It’s been a while since we’ve had tea. Coffee is nice and has its place, like at breakfast, but hot tea is a good thing all day long, in any situation. As it turns out, there is nothing like a steaming cup of Earl Gray after having the bejeezus scared out of you. The Manor is gorgeous inside; just the right touches of comfy and modern to make a stately old house homey. Steve orders scones to go with the tea and we munch away happily. Another great day, really.

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About the author

Hi, I’m Carmen “Mica” Alex and this is my blog about science, traveling, life and anything else that’s interesting or beautiful.


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