In the Rough: Taking it Slow on Scotland’s Wild West Coast

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Lonely Planet has rated Scotland as one of the top three countries in the world to visit in 2014. (see http://www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-tips-and-articles/lonely-planets-best-in-travel-2014-top-10-countries). Between the Commonwealth Games, which take place in Glasgow next summer and next September’s independence referendum, there is no doubt that 2014 will be an exiting year for visitors and possibly a life-changing one all who live here. But what I love best about Scotland are its quiet fringes, where some of the best events have been crafted by the glacial forces of nature and time.

Drive about three hours north and west of Scotland’s post-industrial central belt and you find yourself in a watercolour landscape which seems to have been crumpled by the hands of a giant, spread out, crumpled again and torn into long, wrinkled fringes. Between the relative metropolises of Oban, Fort William and Mallaig is an area sometimes referred to as The Rough Bounds: a set of peninsulas separated by deep lochs and so tangentially linked to the mainland that they are nearly as remote as the Hebridean islands to the west.

Travelling with young children has always felt like a balancing act between excitement and frustration: the vicarious joy of their first experiences can, I have to admit, be tempered by impatience to escape buggy-friendly paths and toddler-friendly eating establishments. Travelling in Scotland with young children adds a further dimension: the inevitable challenge of finding things to do when the rain comes hammering down.

At eleven and six, after years of being coaxed, cajoled, dragged and sometimes carried through woods, along beaches and up hills, my kids have at last become outdoor people. They mountain bike, swim in the sea, scramble up rock faces, hike like troopers and don’t melt in the rain. So for the mid-term break this October, we loaded up our little Skoda with four mountain bikes, boots, woollies, waterproofs and food and headed for the Rough Bounds.

Our destination: Moidart, a land of ancient gnarled woodlands, silvery beaches and bubbling rivers, about thirty miles west of Fort William. Take the Rathad nan Eilean—the Road to the Isles—to Lochailort and turn south.  Our home for the week was a self-catering apartment at Kinlochmoidart House: a classic example of a Scots Baronial-style Victorian estate home, complete with characteristic turrets and crennellated rooflines, tucked below the hills at the head of Loch Moidart.  This being the rutting season, small groups of red deer had gathered in the fields around the estate, the stags strutting and bellowing and butting heads well into the night.

Our accommodation, The Turret, was once part of the servants’ wing and boasted quirky period features including a walk-in larder in the kitchen, Victorian wall tiles in the dining room, oversized bathtub (brilliant for slipping into steaming peat-stained water after a day of tromping in the hills) and a hidden doorway (now leading to the next-door apartment) in the hallway. It was well equipped with everything you need for a week, including a large and diverse library of books, games, television and DVD player, and plenty of wood and coal for the fireplace in the living room. There are electric radiators in all rooms, though these are not particularly efficient and the tiled hall floor is cold underfoot: slippers and cozy clothes for evening lounging with a bottle of wine or a malt whisky are a must!

But you don’t visit the West Highlands to sit in the house, no matter how palatial. Mid-October brings the peak of autumnal colour and often some of the best weather of the year. It is one of the best places in Britain for outdoor activities, space, solitude and that all-too-rare sense of wildness.

Cycling along Glen MoidartCycling: The single track road leading up Glen Moidart is excellent for cycling, up along the river to where the pavement ends and the dirt track leads steeply uphill. This is perfectly accessible for mountain bikes and leads further through the glen to a small hydro-electric station fed by a reservoir amongst the hills above. Spend some time scrambling around the hillsides, looking back out over the glen and keeping an eye out for golden eagles, red deer and other wildlife. Moidart has countless quiet little single-track roads like ribbons over the moorland, all good for cycling. If you have mountain bikes, try the dirt track from Arivegaig, along the shores of Kentra Bay, where we saw a sea eagle being run out of town by an angry mob of gulls, and up through the woods to The Singing Sands.

Walking: there is no better way to absorb a landscape than to walk through it. There are literally dozens of walks to meet all tastes and energy levels: from the boggy hillsides of Ben Resipole to Tolkein-esque rambles through oak and birch groves which are some of the last remnants of the temperate rainforests which used to fringe much of Atlantic Europe. The views change with every step. Round a corner and the islands open out in front of you, the mountains of Eigg, Rum and Skye puncturing the horizon. The Silver Walk from Dorlin Beach is a spectacular coastal scramble through woodlands, hugging the shore of Loch Moidart. Look out for sea eagles gliding between the tops of the high trees on the little islands opposite the path.

Castle Tioram on the shores of Loch Moidart

Another lovely walk starts at Polnish on the A-830 between Lochailort and Arisaig: a well made but somewhat muddy path through woods and over stony hillsides of the Ardnish peninsula to the ruined village of Penmeanach. The village was abandoned by its residents in 1940, but a stroll amongst the little stone walls, now overgrown with brambles, evokes a life now difficult to imagine. One cottage has been maintained as a bothy, and is a popular overnight stop for walkers and kayakers.

Shell sand beach, GlenuigBeaches. On a warm sunny day at Glenuig or Dorlin or the Singing Sands at Kentra, you would be forgiven for thinking you’d washed up somewhere in the Carribean.  White shell sand and water that is so clear you can look down into it from a hillside above and watch fish swimming, seals, the occasional otter or in summer months the massive shadow of a basking shark with its gaping (toothless) mouth. The beach at Dorlin is overlooked by Castle Tioram, the ancient seat of the MacDonald clan, brooding on its own tidal island which you can walk onto when the tide is out.  A bit further north, toward Morar, is Camusdarach beach, made famous as ‘Ben’s Beach’ in the classic film Local Hero.

Wildlife. There is wildlife hide at Garbh Eilean on the shore of Loch Sunart. We visited twice and watched Common Seals leaping out of the water, apparently for the pure joy of being alive in such a place. We saw herons fishing and flapping amongst the trees, and then a sea eagle swoop down from the high hillsides to check them out. Otters are seen here regularly, though we were not lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one this time. Look out for a little curved back followed by a long tale swishing in the water. To see a wild otter is a moment of pure, delightful magic.

Sea Kayaking. This land of broken shorelines, sheltered bays, secret beaches and shimmering water seems to have been made especially for the kayak.  For those without their own boats, try the Arisaig Sea Kayak Centre.

Day trips. Catch the ferry from Kilchoan in Ardnamurchan to Tobermory on the Isle of Mull. Have lunch at the Fish Cafe just next to the Mull ferry terminal: recognised as one of the best seafood restaurants in the UK. Langoustine and Cullen skink to die for. Tool around the Ardnamurchan peninsula: the most westerly point on the British mainland. The lighthouse right at Ardnamurchan Point is a massive pillar of tawny granite designed by Allan Stevenson, uncle of Robert Louis Stevenson, in 1849. If you are of a romantic frame of mind, climb down the rocks toward the crashing sea and watch the sun set over the islands. On a clear day you can see the hills of Harris rising from the sea far to the west. The hills of Eigg and Rum from Ardnamurchan

Local food. If your perfect holiday includes endless culinary choice within walking distance, the Rough Bounds are not the place for you. But the local seafood—once so difficult to buy in Scotland because it was almost all exported as a matter of course—is increasingly available and as fresh as it comes. The langoustines, scallops, mussels, smoked salmon are all on offer at a variety of pubs dotted between Mallaig and Mull. We ate at the Glenuig Hotel, which prides itself as one of Britain’s greenest inns and serves a small but good quality menu featuring local produce. The smoked mussels were delicious, and the venison burgers were tender, tasty and presented with a lovely pile of salad and potato wedges. The hotel is situated on a lovely little tidal inlet, just a short wander from yet another white sand beach. It has a beer garden for the mild days and a wood burning stove inside for those days when additional coziness is required. Mallaig offers a little more choice. We kept with the traditional option: haddock and chips from Jaffy’s Seafood Shop, and in my book they rivalled the best I have had anywhere.

The fabric that holds this region together is the land itself: the playful arrangement of mountains, water, forest, green fields and moorland, painted in so many shades of what I always think of as the colours of Scotland itself: russets, blues, purples and greens. The light and the clouds are restless and delicate, and so affect the look of the landscape that you can never look at the same view twice. Move slowly through this place, breathe its air into your lungs and take time to watch the light change over the land. This is a place where the headlong rush of life stops and you can just be for a little while. Look around. There is so much to see.

Some essentials:

Transport. They say everywhere is within walking distance if you have enough time, but in the Rough Bounds, your own wheels certainly help. You can travel to Lochailort, Arisaig, Morar and Mallaig by train, and there are minimal public bus services, some connecting with ferries, throughout the Rough Bounds and surrounding islands.

Maps. Invest in Ordinance Survey maps of the area and investigate paths and walks. Walkhighlands.co.uk is my favourite website for walks all over Scotland, and there you can print maps, routes and tips for transport and local amenities

Shopping. Fort William is well equipped and there are smaller shops in Arisaig and Mallaig. Acharacle, the largest village in Moidart, has a small shop which can provide you with most essentials. There is an even smaller community-run shop in Glenuig. But don’t run out of toilet paper at eleven o’clock at night and expect a 24-hour supermarket to come to your rescue! A little forward planning goes a long way.

Get out in it. The West Highlands have weather in abundance. It is the weather that produces some of the most glorious skies and landscapes on Earth. If it rains, snows, blows or shines, get out in it. As Sir Rannulph Fiennes so eloquently put it: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.” 

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Walking to the top

On Saturday we walked up Turnhouse Hill from Flotterstone in the Pentland Hills, with son Jamie (9) and daughter Susanna (4). Turnhouse is the first of the hills that rises steeply above Glencorse Reservoir, an easy escape into the wind-blasted wilds just a few miles from the centre of Edinburgh. This is one of the things I love best about Scotland: the way the hills brood just outside our little cities like grumbly old dragons.

For the seasoned hillwalker, Turnhouse is nothing much- a steepish ascent of around 1000 feet from the carpark at Flotterstone- but it’s a big daunting mountain for little legs. The kids had managed halfway up on a bitter New Year day at the start of the year, moaning their way through the wind to a little stand of gnarled trees that marks the top of the most difficult part of the climb. So, with confidence brought about by better weather and the benefit of nine months’ growth, we set out to beat our previous mark and reach the top. When we reached the trees, we sat on the damp, spongy moss under their branches and had some water and fruit. Then we pressed onwards. They had climbed largely without complaint until this point, but as we faced another sharp incline beyond the stand of trees, the moaning started in earnest.

I know the feeling. A wall of mud, stone, heather and slippy grass rises up in front of your face, and you look up with the almost heartbreaking realisation that the level patch you have reached isn’t the summit, or anywhere close to it. Your legs start to shake. This is not the kind of climb I would have managed as a four year old, or even likely as a nine year old- though for one reason and another my parents never challenged me to try. A little guilt hovered in the back of my mind; maybe this was too hard for them. Maybe it was unfair of us to push them so hard just to satisfy our own selfish need to reach a peak.

But there I was, driving them both from behind, issuing words of encouragement like Mama Drill Instructor. Place your feet carefully, keep your legs moving, slow and steady. Try not to look up. Just think how proud you’ll be. If you make it all the way, you can play video games to your hearts’ content when you get home. That kind of thing. And the occasional Stop, look at that view. We looked back at the precipitous path we’d just climbed, and out over the little county of Midlothian, almost able to identify our house in a greyish row at the top of the Esk Valley, five or six miles away. Then beyond, to the east and the shadowed Firth of Forth, and the Moorfoot Hills to the south. Then climbing on, one foot at a time, not looking up.

And then the top came. The best part of any hillwalk, for me, is the point where the path levels out and you can see the summit cairn there, just a few easy metres in front of you. The incessant wind whips around you from all directions and you might almost spread your arms and fly away. Susanna jumped up and down and Jamie gave a “Woo hoo!” into the wind. We placed our stones onto the cairn, and started down the other side. One little Scottish hill conquered by brave little Scottish legs. So many more to come. I can’t wait.