A Travellerspoint blog

December 2020

UK Road Trip 2020 - Southern Scottish Highlands

Route: Drumsmittal (Black Isle) - Tomintoul (Cairngorm National Park) - North Ballachulish, Fort William

rain 10 °C

OCTOBER 2020

We may have finished our NC500 adventure (see previous blog) but we hadn’t finished with Scotland yet. Our next location was the Black Isle, just north of Inverness on the eastern coast. Although not really an island, the Black Isle is almost entirely surrounded by water, with the Cromarty Firth on its north shore, the Beauly and Moray Firth’s in the south and the North Sea to the east. We were staying in a beautiful modern cottage in the hamlet of Drumsmittal, close to the Moray Firth.

With the weather better than forecast we spent our first day exploring the Black Isle. This activity is very doable in a day as the Isle is only 25 miles (40 km) long and 10 miles (16 km) wide. Having completed the almost mandatory visit to the nearby brewery (Black Isle Brewing Company) and made our contribution to the local economy, the exploration began. The plan was to follow the coast from our base in the south west.

Black Isle Beers

Black Isle Beers

Our first stop was at Chanonry Point, a spit of land that juts out into the Moray Firth. We were here to see dolphins, but there seemed to have been a mix up in the arrangement as there was no sign of them (they hadn’t received the sea-mail). The view out into the Firth was nice though, as was the stroll along the beach.
Next stop was the small town of Cromarty on the most easterly tip of the Isle. Here the Cromarty Firth and Moray Firth combine and spill out into the North Sea. It is also another good place to see dolphins, but again our arrangements seemed to have gone awry. What was very visible though, were the retired oil rigs that were anchored in the Cromarty Firth, a sign of the change in our energy sourcing. We walked along the seafront and around the town before continuing our journey.

Disused oil rig in the Cromarty Firth

Disused oil rig in the Cromarty Firth

More disused oil rig in the Cromarty Firth

More disused oil rig in the Cromarty Firth

Our route now took us along the north shore of the Isle as we followed the Cromarty Firth inland. We drove past more old oil rigs and extensive mud flats before the road ended at the Cromarty Bridge. We crossed the bridge and finished our day circling back to the cottage.

Having got to know the Black Isle the previous day it was now time to visit one of its more quirky attractions, Munlochy Clootie Well.
Clootie wells are found in Celtic places and are linked to ancient healing traditions. The rag or cloot is dipped in the well and tied to a tree in the hope that a sickness or ailment will fade as the rag disintegrates. A many hundred year old practice that has endured to the current day, this site is believed to date back to the 7th century.
The site is only small and didn’t take long to walk around. The cloths hanging from the trees were from the modern day as older garments had long since varnished into the soil. If you didn’t know what you were looking at you would think someone had been fly tipping (illegal disposal of waste or rubbish), but once informed it made much more sense.

Clootie Wells

Clootie Wells

Clootie Well was situated in an attractive wood so we thought we would extend our walk. Unfortunately the bridge across a small river was broken which abruptly curtailed that idea.

The edge of Munlochy Wood

The edge of Munlochy Wood

Undeterred, we sought out another woodland and restarted our activity for the day. The trails at Learnie Red Rock are designed for off road biking but are also suitable for hikers, although cyclists have priority so we had to stay alert. Our route took us up into the forest around the top then back down to where we had started. Mostly in tree cover but a few gaps did allow us to see the shores of the Moray Firth from our elevated position. The hike turned out to be longer than we had expected, mainly due to the nature of the trail. Being predominantly for use by cyclist the gradient was shallow so we zig-zagged a lot when we descended through the forest, consequently extending the distance travelled.

Walking in the rain

Walking in the rain

Water droplet

Water droplet

Being so close to the Scottish Highland’s capital, Inverness, we thought we should visit it. The River Ness runs through its centre having arrived from Loch Ness a few miles up stream. This seemed like a good point to start our visit. Attractive stone buildings line the western side of the river whilst most of the commercial part is on the eastern side. We ambled around the streets and investigated some of the local shops before returning to the tranquility of the Black Isle.

River Ness in Inverness

River Ness in Inverness

All too soon our stay on the Black Isle was over and we were on the move again. Our destination was the Cairngorms National Park, still in the Scottish Highlands but further south.
When we were in the area last, back in 2012, we visited the site of the Battle of Culloden. But didn’t have time to go to the near-by Clava Cairns. Therefore we made this the first stop of the day.
Clava Cairns is a pre-historic burial site dating back 4000 years (see below). Set in a small woodland and away from any noise pollution the place seemed to have a special tranquility. Having the site to ourselves really added to the atmosphere, as did the quietness. The silence was only broken by the occasional caw of crows. We walked around the site visiting each of the three cairns, marvelling at their construction and the standing stone that surrounded them. Information boards by each cairn explained what you were looking at and provided a sense of their importance. A magical start to the day.

large_f4decf00-3648-11eb-8448-858e426878e3.jpegClava Cairns

Clava Cairns

Clava Cairn

Clava Cairn

large_f3fd6fb0-3648-11eb-8448-858e426878e3.jpeg

Next stop was less exciting. A food shop at Tesco’s.
It was then onwards south towards the Cairngorms National Park (see below). There may not have been much sun but it was dry, allowing us to enjoy the beautiful scenery. Autumn was now in full swing so the colours of the trees were spectacular.

Autumn colour all around

Autumn colour all around

Our next stop was unplanned but one that exceeded our expectation. From the road we spotted a herd of Highland Cattle and stopped for a photo. All the animals looked well cared for and in good condition. We stood at various points along the fence and Anne began to take photos. It wasn’t long before the farmer arrived and we got into a conversation about the herd. He was very proud of them and rightly so. He was very informative and we learnt a lot. For example: how to tell a cow from a bull (the horns turn up on a cow and forward on a bull), that they are the oldest registered breed of cattle in the world and that they are extremely hardy (they are perfectly adapted to remain outside even in the harshest of winters). He also told us an unusual story.
A few years ago he was approached by a bride-to-be requesting a couple of his cows to be her bridesmaids. First, thinking it was a joke, he didn’t take it seriously. However, it soon became clear that she was very serious and he eventually attended the wedding as custodian for two of his best cows.

Some beautiful Highland Cattle

Some beautiful Highland Cattle

More Highland Cattle

More Highland Cattle

I can see you!

I can see you!

Highland Cattle and farmer

Highland Cattle and farmer

The day was completed by our arrival in Tomintoul and our accommodation for the next week. We had rented a cottage at the far end of the village which turned out to be a good base to explore from.

The weather forecast for our stay in the Cairngorms National Park didn’t look very promising. Rain had been forecast for every day, which turned out to be correct. But in between the wet weather the sun shone allowing us to do something each day.
We managed three beautiful hikes, each encompassing the varied terrain the park had to offer. We climbed up hills for the view, traversed colourful forests and splashed across very wet moorland. All the time enjoying the scenery and nature, less so the paths that had turned into muddy streams.

Cairngorms scenery

Cairngorms scenery

Hiking in the Cairngorms

Hiking in the Cairngorms

More scenery , more walks

More scenery , more walks

another beautiful but muddy walk

another beautiful but muddy walk

Orange sheep, really orange!

Orange sheep, really orange!

When we weren’t out hiking we explored the towns and villages close by.
The largest of these was Grantown on Spey, the local market town that provided us with provision for the week. Much smaller was our home town of Tomintoul which had the Whisky Castle, a whisky drinkers delight, selling hundreds of different malts from all around the country.
However, our favourite none hiking day involved a visit to the Glenlivet Whisky Distillery. We initially wanted to do a tasting tour but Covid-19 had put pay to that, instead we did a bit of tasting in the distillery shop. To be perfectly accurate though, the actual tasting was done outside the shop. Fully masked up, sanitised and temperature taken we were allowed into the shop. The staff would then provide an explanation of the whiskies they had on display. Based on what we were told we selected two malts to try. We would then be given a glass of our selection and asked to step outside to taste it, as masked couldn’t be removed inside. A 15 year old single malt was the clear winner and we duly bought a bottle to take away with us.

View of Glenlivet distillery

View of Glenlivet distillery

Glenlivet Distillery

Glenlivet Distillery

Shop and tasting room at Glenlivet

Shop and tasting room at Glenlivet

A wee dram of Glenlivet best

A wee dram of Glenlivet best

A very enjoyable experience that capped of a day that had started with a scenic country drive and a visit to a 16th century Packhorse Bridge.

Pack Horse Bridge

Pack Horse Bridge

Our last location in Scotland before crossing the border back into England was close to UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.
The day started with a pleasant drive through the Cairngorms and north towards Inverness. A stop for food on the outskirts of Inverness was followed by a drive down the northern shore of Loch Ness. By now the weather had changed completely with rain affecting our view and making any monster sighting impossible. A brief pause in the rain coincided with our planned stop in Fort Augustus at the western end of the loch. This gave us time to visit the impressive lock chambers, that allow boat access between the Caledonian Canal (see below) and Loch Ness. We finished our town visit at a local artisan glass blowing shop.

Fort Augustus Lock on the Caledonian Canal

Fort Augustus Lock on the Caledonian Canal

Glass blower

Glass blower

With the rain returning we left Fort Augustus and continued our journey. The landscape was now more mountainous with a wild beauty that is present on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands. Just before Fort Williams the rain abated which allowed us to take another break. This time with the bonus of being able to see Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain at 1,345m (4,413ft). A dusting of snow covered its upper reaches and probably the summit, although low clouds obscured that from our view.

On the road to Fort William

On the road to Fort William


Commando Memorial

Commando Memorial

Ben Nevis from the Commando Memorial

Ben Nevis from the Commando Memorial

A short drive now completed the journey for the day and got us to our accommodation for the next five nights. A beautiful loft apartment in North Ballachulish with stunning views out over Loch Linnhe.

View across Loch Linnhe from our accommodation

View across Loch Linnhe from our accommodation

View from the Ferry departure to the other side of Loch Linnhe

View from the Ferry departure to the other side of Loch Linnhe

It rained at some point on each day of our stay, but with a bit of careful planning this didn’t restrict us too much. On the only day that was a complete wash out we visited the M&S Foodhall and got our enjoyment from that. On the other days we explored the natural beauty with hikes in the surrounding area.

After a morning of rain the sky cleared and allowed us to leave the apartment. Our destination was Glen Nevis and its impressive waterfalls, strengthened by the recent wet period. A single track road got us deep into the glen before we park up and had to walk the rest of the way. Our goal was to reach Steall Falls (also known as An Steall Ban - “The White Spout” in Gaelic) Scotland’s second highest waterfall, with a single drop of 120 meters (390 feet).
Our path weaved up into the forest, crossing numerous streams, before arriving at a group of large boulders were the River Nevis squeezes through a narrow gorge.

Hiking in Glen Nevis

Hiking in Glen Nevis

It's raining but still beautiful autumn colours

It's raining but still beautiful autumn colours

Just Wow

Just Wow

Rushing water over boulders

Rushing water over boulders

Beyond the gorge the landscape opened up into a lush alpine meadow with Steall Falls crashing down the mountain side in the far corner. A magnificent sight, and that’s coming from a couple that have seen some impressive waterfalls. Unfortunately for us, at this point a heavy downpour arrived. The decision was to take our photos from a distance rather than getting completely drenched trying to get closer. We will get a closer look on our next visit.

Steall Falls

Steall Falls

We retraced our steps in the relative dry of the forest and were greeted with sunshine when we arrived back at the car park. This made for a bright and sunny drive out of Glen Nevis and back to the apartment.

Glen nevis

Glen nevis

Glen Nevis

Glen Nevis

Having gone north to Glen Nevis the previous day we headed in the opposite direction the following day. Destination, the very scenic Glencoe. Heavy rain was forecast for the afternoon so we went out in the morning.
It was a short drive along the banks of Loch Linnhe and Loch Leven to reach Glencoe. An unplanned stop punctuated this journey when we saw a Red Deer stag grazing in a field next the road. We parked up and got out for a better view and take a few photos. The stag was far enough away for us not to disturb it but close enough to get a good view. We watched him for about 15 minutes then continued our journey.

Red Deer Stag

Red Deer Stag

Red Deer Stag

Red Deer Stag

By the time we reached Glencoe, the little sun there was had disappeared behind the clouds, but it was still dry. With mountains towering either side of us and waterfalls tumbling down their slopes, the scenery was magnificent, even in this increasing cloudy conditions. We lingered for a while to take photos then progress to the start of our planned walk of the day.

Glencoe

Glencoe

Glencoe views

Glencoe views

Glencoe, next time I may try to stay in this cottage!

Glencoe, next time I may try to stay in this cottage!

Glencoe

Glencoe

Today’s hike was in a small forest wedged between the glen and Loch Leven. It had a number of paths to chose from, all interlinking and of varying length. We selected a shortish route knowing that rain was on the way. But when it didn’t arrive we kept extending the walk. Finally we felt we couldn’t push our luck any further and headed back to the car. An inspired choice, because no sooner had we got into the car than the rain poured down.

Glencoe walk

Glencoe walk

The rain continued for the rest of the day but we were not bothered. We could enjoy our comfortable apartment whilst watching the weather though the window, as the rain drifted across the loch and incased the surrounding mountains.

It continued to rain throughout the night and into the following day. Any ideas we had of doing something that day had been dashed. We were also low on food, so decided to make the activity of the day a trip to the M&S Foodhall.

Fortunately the weather was much better for our last day in the area and we took advantage of it with a walk along the western end of the Caledonian Canal (see below). The walk started at an area called “Neptunes Staircase”. A combination of eight locks, each 180 feet (55m) by long 40 feet (12m), lifting boats by 64 feet (20m) in around 90 minutes.

Neptune Staircase looking down

Neptune Staircase looking down

Neptune Staircase looking up

Neptune Staircase looking up

The walk took us west along the banks of the canal until we reached the waters of Loch Linnhe. In addition to seeing life on the canal, we got our best views of Ben Nevis and was treated to the sight of a steam train (The Jacobite we think) as it passed through Banavie railway station.

View of Ben Nevis from Neptune Staircase

View of Ben Nevis from Neptune Staircase

Steam Train leaving Banavie station

Steam Train leaving Banavie station

Steam Train

Steam Train

Loch Linnhe

Loch Linnhe

Looking across Loch Linnhe towards Fort William

Looking across Loch Linnhe towards Fort William

It was now time to leave this beautiful area and also Scotland, for the drive today would take us across the border and back into England. With a bit of time to spare we decided to take a scenic route south. First we followed the banks of Loch Linnhe, then turned east just as the Isle of Mull came into view. Across the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park and on to the main road towards Edinburgh. East of Edinburgh we joined the coastal road all the way back into England and the start of the last leg to our road trip.

Leaving Scotland

Leaving Scotland

Leaving Scotland

Leaving Scotland

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Clava Cairns
The Clava Cairns is a Bronze Age cemetery dating back 4,000 years but the site was still in use thousands of years later The three well-preserved cairns each have a central chamber. But while the two outer cairns have entrance passages, the chamber of the central one is enclosed. Each cairn is also surrounded by a ring of standing stones.
Midwinter was an important time of year for the society who built the cairns.
The three prominent cairns form a line running north-east to south-west. The passages of the two cairns are also aligned towards the south-west, suggesting that the builders had their eyes on the midwinter sunset. The standing stones also suggest a focus on the midwinter sunset – they are graded in height with the tallest facing the setting sun in the south-west.
Considerable thought must have gone into the planning and construction of the graves. The midwinter solstice would have marked an important turning point in the year - many similar monuments across the British Isles have a similar alignment with movements of the midwinter sun. Such sites can tell us about beliefs of past societies and how they understood their world.
The cairns’ burial chambers were cleared out long ago, but we can tell from similar monuments that only one or two people would have been buried in each cairn. It would have taken a large number of people to build the Clava Cairns, indicating that these were perhaps resting places for important individuals.

Clava Cairn

Clava Cairn

Clava cairns

Clava cairns

Clava Cairns

Clava Cairns

Clava Cairns

Clava Cairns

Cairngorms National Park
The Cairngorms National Park covers an area of 4,528 square kilometres and is the largest national park in the UK. The mountain range of the Cairngorms lies at the heart of the national park, but forms only one part of it. Hill ranges, such as the Angus Glens and the Monadhliath together with lower areas such as Strathspey and upper Deeside, make up the rest. Three major rivers rise in the park: the Spey, the Dee, and the Don. The Spey, which is the second longest river in Scotland, rises in the Monadhliath, whilst the Dee and the Don both rise in the Cairngorms themselves.
It has a resident population of around 18,000 and welcomes almost 2 million tourist eat year. It's also a haven for British wildlife and has the only population of Reindeer in the UK. They now roam the high Cairngorms, after being re-introduced in 1952 by a Swedish herdsman. The herd is now stable at around 150 individuals.

Cairngorms scenery

Cairngorms scenery

Cairngorms scenery

Cairngorms scenery

Caledonian Canal
The canal connects the Scottish east coast at Inverness with the west coast at Corpach near Fort William. It runs some 60 miles (97 km) and reaches 106 feet above sea level. Only one third of the entire length is man-made, the rest being formed by Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. These lochs are located in the Great Glen, a geological fault in the Earth’s crust. There are 29 locks, four aqueducts and 10 bridges in the course of the canal.
It was constructed in the early nineteenth century by Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, and cost £910,000.

Posted by MAd4travel 12:16 Archived in Scotland Comments (1)

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