1,000 miles behind the wheel proves a satisfying way to see rural Scotland
June 16, 2010
I’m in the parking lot of Scotland’s Glasgow Prestwick Airport, and I’m not certain which way to turn.
It’s the right-hand drive dilemma, where you’re never quite sure which way to negotiate an intersection — and forget about the roundabouts. Still, I’m bound for the north coast of mainland Scotland and beyond and my first stop is about 300 miles away. I have to make a move, so I take another turn around the parking lot in my black VW Polo and edge onto the motorway heading north.
My flight from Frankfurt, Germany, had arrived late in the afternoon, so I’m not sure how far I’ll get on the first day. It’s surprisingly easy to navigate the streets around Glasgow and I’m quickly through this historic city built on the River Clyde. I continue north, stop at a Scottish Tourism office, and buy an excellent road map for a couple of pounds, then continue toward Loch Linnhe and a place to stop for the night.
A loch can mean two things in Scottish: It can be an inlet from the ocean (a sea loch) or it can mean a lake. Loch Linnhe is a sea loch and the beginning of the Great Glen Way. This scenic route ends in Inverness, but not before passing through Loch Ness, home of the famous monster.
You can actually walk the 73 miles of the Great Glen Way from Fort William to Inverness, and the route will take you past Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest mountain at 4,400 feet. But I’m in a hurry to get to the northern coast, so I drive this scenic highway on an exceptionally beautiful day.
The scenery is rugged and forlorn. At a popular scenic overlook, I stop the car and join a crowd of people from a tourist bus to look out at the rounded mountains and listen to the stirring sounds of a piper performing in traditional military uniform.
It’s a picture postcard moment which is about to be shattered.
As I walk back to my car for my camera, the piper shouts at me in a thick brogue: “You think I do this for free, then?” he says. He picks up his tip box and gives it a shake. “Well, I don’t.”
It’s as if the postcard has come to life, and it’s not happy.
“I’m just getting my camera,” I say, but I reach into my pocket for a 1 pound coin. The piper nods when I drop it in his box, and when I return to my car he follows me for a chat.
Piper Jack had been a piper in the army and when he retired he took his uniform and his pipes with him. “No work around here now,” he says. “And I’m not one to go on public assistance. A man can’t live like that.”
So Jack continues to do what he does best — play the bagpipes. Every day, from January to November, Jack suits up in his old military uniform, drives his old car to this site, and from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. he sets up his small table and plays the songs that he played for years in the military. It’s a perfect fit as his tunes fill the cool, clear air of the glen.
And for me, the phrase, “It’s time to pay the piper” has taken on new meaning. I shake hands with this proud, resourceful man, then continue toward Inverness — passing up a chance to see Nessie — and the royal burgh of Wick on the northeast coast.
Wick has three harbors, which is fitting for a once-booming herring-fishing and boat-building town. Today the scenic town on the River Wick is mainly a gateway for ferries to the Orkney Islands, where I go for a three-day side trip of touring and fishing. The town has a few good restaurants, the Old Pulteney whisky distillery and several places to stay.
But just south of Wick, where the steep cliffs plunge into the cold Atlantic, rests a dark reminder of a more turbulent time in Scotland’s history.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy English landowners forcibly evicted small clans of tenant farmers from their land. Some historians say it was to provide more grazing area for a lucrative sheep industry. Others say that it was a form of “ethnic cleansing.” But most agree that it signaled the end of the clan system and with it the Gaelic language. Many poor tenant farmers were evicted from their farms and literally forced to the edge — the edge of the shoreline and the steep coastal land that the landowners considered useless. Other Highlanders moved to the lowlands or emigrated to North America and New Zealand.
The Badbea Clearance Village is one of several Clearance sites found along the coast and the islands of Scotland. It’s a steep walk down to Badbea and what had once been home to 12 families. The land is so steep it is said that the smaller children and lambs had to be tethered to keep them from falling into the crashing sea below.
The last resident left Badbea in 1911 and today, the site has a well-marked, self-guided walking trail with information, drawings and photos from the turn of the century. A memorial cairn, which lists the families’ names, is built from the stones of their tiny homes.
Upon my return from the Orkneys, I begin the next leg of my journey in Thurso. It is about 120 miles from Thurso, on the north coast of mainland Scotland, to the fishing port of Ullapool on the west coast, but not many people drive it — which is a missed opportunity. The well-maintained, two-lane roads wind through small coastal villages, past crumbling castles, seemingly endless moors and brooding mountains. It’s an all-day drive to Ullapool and I’ve got a bag of meat pies and Cornish pasties for picnics along the way.
Ullapool has been a fishing town since 1788 when it was created by the British Fisheries Society to make money in the profitable herring and mackerel fisheries. It was also a destination for people displaced by the Highland Clearances. Today the orderly little harbor town is still packed with fishing boats, but they share the docks with the larger tourist ferries to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis about 30 miles away.
You always seem to be walking uphill in Ullapool, but it’s worth the hike up to the small visitor center on West Argyle Street for a handful of local maps and brochures provided by a friendly staff. And while I’m on West Argyle Street, I stop into The Ceilidh Place for a pint, browse its seafood menu and purchase a book on Celtic music in its bookshop.
I delay my return to Glasgow with a stop at the River Spey. Mortimer’s of Speyside is an old established fly-fishing shop in the small, upbeat tourist town of Grantown-on-Spey. For a fly-fisherman, the River Spey means fishing for salmon and trout with long, two-handed fly rods named after this famous river.
But it also means paying a high price for that privilege.
“Now don’t be put off by what you hear,” says the proprietor of Mortimer’s. “We get a lot of Americans and a lot of Europeans who come here to fish. A permit can be had for as little as 10 pound per day.”
But, he adds, it can go up to as much as 500 pounds per day. “That’s on private property. And they only allow six rods per beat (stretch of river), provide a ghillie (guide), and besides, someone would have to die before you can even apply for one of those permits.”
I pick out some orange and black, double-hook dry flies that I am assured are irresistible to salmon and trout, wiggle a couple of very high-priced double-handed traditional Spey rods and then, with a brochure and a map, head down to this famous fishing river.
It’s surprisingly rocky with lots of obstacles between the shore and the open water. A narrow, dirt path parallels the river. I understand that sometimes fishermen line up along this path and then fish their way up or down the river in unison. In late April, it’s still a little too early for spring fishing, but soon — I’ve been told — the lines will form.
By now I’ve mastered my right-hand drive Polo, and it’s no problem driving the final 200 miles back to Prestwick Airport. When I return the key to the Auto Europe desk, I’m sorry to give up my car (even though the price of gasoline had topped $7 a gallon with the exchange rate). After driving almost 1,000 miles, I had found places that I never would have seen, and I was able to stop and explore places that I intend to revisit.
One week was not enough.
Know & Go
• The small towns around Loch Lomond are set up for tourism, and the nightly lodging prices reflect it. After looking at a couple of beautiful places in the 100-125 pounds ($145 to $180) range, I happened upon a small bed-and-breakfast at the crossroads in tiny Tarbet. At 25 pounds a night, Lochview B&B is homey and clean. In the morning, owner Betty Fairfield served a full Scottish breakfast with all the coffee I could drink around a oval table in the middle of her living room before sending me on my way to Inverness; telephone (+44) (0) 1301-702200.
• It was late when I arrived in Ullapool, but by luck I find another 25-pound-per-night bed-and-breakfast. Sunnybank B&B is located right on Shore Street across from the working waterfront. The landlady is an artist and has several paintings in the house. I was tired after the drive and she brought me a silver tray with a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits, then sat with me in a window seat and talked about an art exhibit she had just seen in Edinburgh; telephone (+44) (0)8717-667089.
• Mortimer’s of Speyside sells quality fishing tackle and outdoor clothing, equipment and accessories. For specifics, go to www.mortimersofspeyside.co.uk