The second half of our trip saw us returning to the Scottish mainland. The journey from Stornoway in Lewis to Ullapool is one of my favourite ferry journeys in Scotland. You can watch the Outer Hebrides fade into a haze over amazingly blue water and then enjoy the spectacular appearance of the mountainous Scottish coastline. In the last 30 minutes you pass some of the Summer Isles and are surrounded by massive hills on both sides. We had amazing weather so could spend time up on the outdoor viewing decks but all the Cal Mac ferries I've been on usually have great viewing areas indoors, especially the one from Stornoway to Ullapool. It cost us £72 for the 2.5 hour crossing, 2 adults and 2 kids with a car. You can read more about the first stage of our trip in Part 1.
Ullapool is stunning. In summer the bustling streets are filled with hikers and kayaks and families. It's an infectious atmosphere that primes you for adventure. It's also a testament to how amazing the area is for outdoor pursuits. In practical terms Ullapool is one of your last opportunities to buy from a decent sized supermarket or outdoor shops before heading farther north. You really are entering remote Scotland so make sure you stock up on essentials.
Before we left we also made sure to be organised. We printed out tickets and detailed written descriptions of routes for the smaller roads in case of GPS failure. For most of this trip, Google Maps is out of the question due to poor mobile/3G signal (don't expect to rely on phones at all). We also printed out all contacts for our accommodation and any other details we might need. This all came in really handy and I recommend it.
The road from Ullapool to Tongue, where we were staying next, is amazing. Straight out of Ullapool you'll meet Ardmair and we stopped there for quite a while.
The beach there is an entirely pebble beach. I love the sounds of a pebble beach but also, this beach must be where all the skimming stones in Scotland are kept. Every single stone is perfect for the job and we spent ages doing this. Anyone who has lost an hour to stone skimming knows how utterly addictive it can be in that meditative sort of way.
Although cairns are found worldwide, if you are from Scotland, or have travelled here, you'll definitely be familiar with them. Cairns are markers. Perhaps they mark a summit, perhaps a route, an ancient ceremony or burial site. The cairns that exist on the beach at Ardmair are built by passersby to memorialise their time in a place they loved. There is always something really special about stepping into an area that affected people so much they wanted to leave a little piece of themselves behind. I totally understand why there are so many cairns on this particular spot, it's stunningly beautiful.
We continued on our way through hills upon hills and we passed Knockan Crag. We were planning to walk the route as we love anything geology related but it started to pour, the mist settled in, the kids started to complain and we were knackered. I highly recommend you do this if you can, especially if you are interested in geology and Scotland has a fascinating geological history! It's also suitable for kids. Another place in the area that we didn't make it to is The Bone Caves and we are really gutted about that.
We took the route through Altnaharra to get to Tongue and I'm glad we did. I grew up in Caithness and the scenery reminded me so much of my childhood. The rust-reds, greens and yellows of the peat lands and the roads that seem to go on forever. As you get closer to Tongue, Ben Loyal becomes a prominent feature in the landscape.
We watched Ben Loyal get bigger and bigger and we were all really taken in by its rugged beauty. In the evening light it looked hyper real as it was lit by the sun. Awaiting us at our accommodation in Tongue village was a wonderful surprise, from our back garden we had a clear view of Ben Loyal and the Kyle of Tongue!
The drive there is easily one of the best parts of the North Coast 500. My husband drove on this trip and he told me parts of it were a really fun drive. Here's a video of us enjoying the drive whilst listening to Rush.
It's not the easiest drive in parts and it was actually very busy so it was occasionally slow going, but that just gave us the opportunity to take in our incredible surroundings.
Loch Eribol, a sea loch, is one of the most distinctive landmarks on this route and if you are anything like us, you will fall in love with the wee island near Heilam and it's amazing abandoned house. Linked to the mainland only by a small causeway, it's called Ard Neackie and was the terminus point for the now gone Heilam ferry. Ideal place to live or what!?
This area is incredibly mountainous, and again, my images are not doing those hills justice at all. They are huge and a powerfully prominent part of the vista.
The Balnakeil craft village is a mishmash of artists and crafters who sell paintings, jewellery, glass crafts, artisan food etc. It's a real mixed bag and well worth a look! As you leave the craft village Faraid head is very close by. I'd heard it was a fantastic hike so we got suited and booted and were surprised to find that we were the only ones headed out over the beach towards the dunes on the other side. We were not prepared at all for how special this place is and I'm surprised more people don't do this walk. It's pretty easy and doable with kids (we had our youngest in the hiking backpack) and it will blow you away.
The dunes themselves are huge, in parts they towered over us as the path cut between them. I really lost myself in this landscape. Once you get into the middle of the walk you can't see anything but sand, shaped by the rain and wind, and it's incredible! If there is anything more relaxing than the sound and sight of grass moving and rustling on the dunes I am yet to find it. We spent a long time exploring this sandscape, watching the little birds that had made their nests by burrowing into the dunes, listening to the sounds of sea and wind and of course the kids went crazy running up and down.
The dunes are the central area of Faraid Head and if you pop down one of the many paths of desire you'll hit a cove or a beach with views out into the ocean. We had glimpsed a remote beach on our way into the dunes so we wound through sand and grass to get to it. A bit of a steep climb down in parts but nothing has ever been more worth the effort. I've included a video I took of the beach so you can geat idea of how incredible it was. It's just my family and I there, no one else in the world...and some cows.
We were all knackered after this walk and decided to head back to Tongue for the evening. The weather was incredible so after dinner we asked our host for tips on shorter walks around the village. She suggested heading up to Castle Varrich which we could see from the property high up on a rocky hill with what looked like a 360 degree view of the area.
A quick note on midges. They are everywhere, you will not avoid them, make sure you take precautions. I have a midge allergy and my bites swell hugely and last for weeks and weeks. I've found that nothing helps prevent the biting really but the only thing that I have found to help me in any way is Red Tiger Balm. I applied it on my bites as soon as I noticed them and they didn't swell up and they only lasted 3 or 4 days before healing. This is a major breakthrough for me and my top tip for those who suffer as I do.
The walk to Castle Varrich is beautiful and the history of the castle is fascinating. If you like a bit of a mystery, you'll love reading about it. It's an easy ish walk, about 30 minutes and on a good path. It's steep nearer the top of the walk and the castle steps themselves are very steep. The walk is stunning and the view is a 360 degree vista of amazingness. I took a short video of the view over the Kyle and to Castle Varrich when we arrived back at our accommodation. It includes an incredibly cute cat.
This day was a real highlight of the trip for me. Sutherland is one of my favourite places in the world and I feel like we really got to see some of the best of it. We went to bed so tired but very happy.
Caithness was on our list for the next day. I actually grew up there so know it like the back of my hand. We didn't plan to spend much time there, just see friends and show the kids some of my childhood haunts. I actually only took about three photos that day as I was so tired. It's good to give yourself a break from the pressure to document everything. It can become all consuming and a little compulsve to be honest.
The drive into Caithness from Sutherland is gorgeous and the views over to Orkney were stunning, its cliffs looked dazzlingly high highlighted in the afternoon sun. We headed to Dunnet to visit a friend and I would recommend this as a stop for sure. The beach is wonderful, the forest walk is great, Dunnet Head is the most northerly point of the British mainland and they have an excellent gin distillery.
The coastline of Caithness is the most interesting and beautiful part, in my opinion. There are some remote areas inland that are beautiful too and Loch More is a personal favourite of mine. The whole east coast has a really interesting history and is a visual miscellany of endeavours. Crops, cattle, crafts and the sea. It looks like a land that doesn’t give anything up too easily. Just like the sea that meets the interior scruffy, rural patchwork. That coastline is battered by a sea that stretches to Orkney, Shetland, The Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway. It's a raggedly beautiful place.
We only had a few hours in the county this time around but we are planning to explore the east coast more extensively at some point. Its history alone is worth the trip.
After staying in Tongue, our final stop was Kinlochbervie. On the way, we drove back along Loch Eribol and headed towards Lotte Glob's Sculpture Croft. You must go here. I didn't take my camera with me but it's stunningly beautiful. Her workshop is great but the outdoor space is full of nooks and crannies filled with amazing sculptures. Lotte's work is wonderful and we treated ourselves to one of her vases which I am completely in love with. Her use of colour and texture and how much she is influenced by the landscape around her is inspirational. She also made her start at Balnakeil Craft Village!
Our next stop was Smoo Cave. It was easily the busiest place that we visited and I'd recommend going really early or late in the day to avoid the crowds. or maybe everyone has that idea. The walk down is steep but the steps are solid and wide so it's fine for kids. The cave is busy for a reason, it's an incredible space, impressively large and although we didn't manage to get into the interior chamber this time, we really look forward to doing this on our next visit as I hear it's great!
The drive from to Kinlochbervie takes you past Cape Wrath. I'd looked into visiting Cape Wrath and decided against it this time. It's not as simple as driving there as the area of land that makes up the cape is used by the military. You have to cross the Kyle and wait to cross back over. Totally doable of course but not something I wanted to do with our youngest. This is a very remote area and you really feel that when you are there. The landscape is starkly beautiful and so vast. Despite its remoteness the roads are great but were busy so get used to using passing places!
The north west Highlands of Scotland are part of a huge GeoPark. Scotland not only has an amazing history but an amazing geological history. There are many areas of geological interest and all are worth a visit. The GeoPark website (linked above) is very informative and can help you plan trips to take in the sites. Driving towards Kinlochbervie the landscape becomes more and more rocky, reminiscent of Lewis and Harris. It's an expansive and brutal beauty. There are rocks in Scotland that are some of the oldest in the world and looking at these landscapes you really do get a sense of the vast passing of time.
Speaking of geological wonders, very near Kinlochbervie on the road to Scourie you will see how the road is cut into the landscape, where the rock was blasted and shaped to make way. If you're not looking for it, you might miss it but I was an eagle-eyed rock nerd. This is a beautiful example of parts of Scotland's geological history. Layered rocks of different types. I loved seeing this.
We were in fact staying just outside of Kinlochbervie in Shegra. It's about as far as you can go in this part of the world and the drive there is gorgeous. Lots of great beaches in the area and it's particularly charming with its tiny villages nestled in among huge and ancient rocks. Shegra is tiny and our final rental had views over the whole village and the bay. That first night we went for a late walk down to the beach and it was so peaceful. Every time I'm near the sea, no matter how unlikely it is, I have taken to willing the sea to provide by thinking 'Whale breach please', a silent wish to make a dream come true. Unfortunately on this trip, it was not meant to be.
We didn't manage to spend time at the two other amazing beaches that are very near Shegra but by all accounts Oldshoremore and Sandwood Bay (which requires a hike) are beautiful. Sandwood Bay has to be one of the most remote beaches in the UK.
On our last day the weather was the worst we had seen it on the trip. Freezing cold, lashing rain and so much low lying mist. We decided to head out anyway and drive towards Lochinver as we were convinced we could put some distance between us and the weather. We were wrong.
Don't get me wrong, Scotland wears any weather well and it's even more atmospheric and intriguing in the mist and rain. However, we were tired and the going was so slow that we all started getting really grumpy with one another. The scenery we could see was stunning but we missed out on a lot of views due to very poor visibility which made me particularly grumpy. I took very few photographs that day.
We made a much needed stop in Lochinver and had lunch at Peet's which was lovely and the food was delicious, great for kids too and I highly recommend it. A break from the car and the never ending rain and feeling constantly disappointed was so needed and that plus full bellies stopped us from murdering one another.
The route we took was packed with things to do and see and we really want to return to do it justice. Assynt really blew us away and it was our first time there. Achmelvich was stunning, there are signs of a meteorite impact at Stoer (and in many other areas!), some of the oldest rocks in the UK at Little Assynt and the thing we would have most liked to do is hike to Eas a' Chual Aluinn Britain's highest (and possibly most remote) waterfall. I think, after reading about it on my return to Edinburgh that this is something we will do without the kids, it's much longer and more steep at the end than I expected. I could go on and on about this area and still feel a pang of disappointment about how little we got done, but that's just motivation to get back there ASAP!
Here are the few pics I took on the day.
As we drove back to Shegra the mist lifted and the weather was beautiful. Of course.
We left early the next day and enjoyed stunning weather all the way back to Edinburgh. My heart was heavy knowing we were leaving all of this wild beauty behind and I think I took my favourite image of the whole trip soon after we left Shegra. It was the perfect gift goodbye.
This trip was one of the best things we've ever done as a family. Something that began as a thing we were quite nervous about doing turned into a transformative experience for us all. I can say that we all returned with much less anxiety than when we left and a much closer family.
City life is wonderful, Edinburgh is wonderful but there is something healing in nature. The Japanese are all over that fact, promoting 'Forest Therapy' as a government endorsed way to heal and de-stress.
I also think that knowing the country you live in better, connecting with it and appreciating it is good for all sorts of positive attitudes. I mentioned in Part 1 that this trip cost the same as us going to Mexico on an all inclusive holiday. We got so much more out of this than that sort of holiday could ever provide. Not to deride the merits of a relaxing beach holiday, in a beautiful place, and 30 degree heat! However, I am forever sold on the benefits of the 'staycation' and I can't wait to do it again. I am totally and madly in love with Scotland.
Thanks so much for travelling with us!