Or, By Land By Sea

Saturday 30th August

Contrary to normal behaviour, Steve is surprised to find I have no trouble getting up this morning, though I’ve never seen the time ’03.46’ on the car’s display before, which feels a bit odd.  It was absolutely the right decision to start out so early however, the roads for the majority of the journey are a pleasure and I enjoy the drive.   I am a little surprised to find my car has a tyre deflation warning, which came on within about 15 miles of home!  But given we’re carrying two amps, two guitars, other assorted guitarist paraphernalia, all my camera gear and luggage for a two-week holiday, all in the back of the car, hardly difficult to diagnose the issue.  A quick reset and we’re good to go.

I watch the sunrise over Doncaster while Steve snoozes next to me, and give a mental wave to our Sheffield friends and relatives as we speed up the A1M.  We cross the border late morning and reach our first stop by early lunchtime.  Steve even praises me on my driving (‘you did ok actually’)!  We are sampling the delights of Edinburgh’s finest hostelries by early afternoon (5 of them no less).  Several market research visits to Edinburgh’s two branches of Ness and I am the proud owner of a new designer tartan satchel.

We find a gem of a little secret restaurant behind the castle and enjoy haggis and red wine for dinner, before catching the train ‘home’ and joining a rousing chorus of Scotland the Brave.  Fair brought a tear t’me eye, aye!

Sunday 1st September

Thankfully, a slightly later start – this time yesterday we were already half way between Yorkshire and Edinburgh.  The view at the B&B is breathtaking, and we can see from the train that the house really does hug the shoreline.  Steve’s a bit hungover this morning, but a brisk walk up a steep hill to the station – then back down again to find a bus, then back up again when the bus is going to take longer than the train – soon sorts us out.

As if that exercise wasn’t enough, we climb the hill to the Nelson Monument and Acropolis Folly (though thankfully, not all the way to the castle and Arthur’s Seat!)  There are still some amazing views of Edinburgh from here, and it seems a popular spot for wedding photos too, though I pity the girls in their stilettos on the soft grass.

We have a pitstop in the Café Royal, which we’ve never found before, being quite hidden away, but a real gem of a find, with a colourful history which nearly saw it destroyed in the late 20th Century.  A spot of shopping and another pitstop in the Sports Bar opposite the station, a disappointing result which we won’t dwell on… and back to the Café Royal.  We share a booth with a lovely couple from Kirkcaldy, who’ve come down for a day out, and end up having such a laugh they nearly miss their last train home.  Oh, and our waiter was Angus Young (I kid you not).

We stay in town for the firework display that has been staged to mark the end of the festival – very pretty – and this time share a train ride with a very jolly bunch which includes a boy with a jar of silly putty.  Which makes bottom burp noises.  Boys…. !

Monday 2nd September

I break out the DSLR today, as we sleep in Killin tonight, which means losing myself behind the camera at the Falls of Dochart.  And then losing ourselves in a pint at the Falls of Dochart Inn.  It’ll be interesting to compare this year’s photos of the Falls with those I’ve taken on previous trips.  But first, we make a detour to see the Devil’s Caudron and while I’m zooming in with my long lens (steady!), I can see some odd flecks in the water.  Too far away to be able to take meaningful pictures, but you’ll have to take my word for it: something I’ve never seen before, salmon jumping up the waterfall.  Amazing!   

We also fit in a visit to the Famous Grouse Distillery, and Steve rolls his eyes because I have to park next to the other Civic in the car park.  (No sticker though…)  The distillery was great fun, especially the interactive section at the end of the tour, designed to make you see through the eyes of the grouse.  It feels really weird to be standing on a floor that’s part of the moving projection!  We vow to keep our eyes out for a bottle of Black Grouse when we get back, and wonder at the reasoning behind the couple (straight out of ‘On the Buses’) who join the tour but ‘I won’t have a sample thanks, I don’t drink.  And my husband doesn’t like whisky’.  Ooo-kaay…

We arrive in Killin after a quiet but enjoyable drive on lovely roads (including past Knockhill J ), through some beautiful weather with just a hint of mist.  Our B&B is a little self-contained cottage/maisonette, an absolute beauty (it has a spiral staircase!!) but we drag ourselves away and down to the Falls to take the photos I mentioned, and then on to the Inn, where we’re served Feast Ale and fish and chips by the knowledgeable and affable Sean.  A perfect end to the day. 

Tuesday 3rd September

I’m in the middle of a fairly vivid dream when I become aware of an otherworldly screeching noise which only fails to really scare me because it just doesn’t fit the story.   Then I wake up.  And the screeching is still there.  And getting louder, until…  WHOOOOOOOSSSSSHHHHHH!!!!!   Ah.  It’s a Tornado.  Boys: it’s 3am.  Really?!

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A fantastic breakfast is brought to us by our lovely landlord, even though we could have quite easily made it ourselves in this fabulous little building (did I mention the staircase?)  I can hardly bear that we can’t stay another night but sadly, the place is fully booked throughout the year and we were lucky to get one night here.  Besides: today we drive through Glen Coe! 

We set off into another sunny day and after a while, I can’t understand why Steve the Navigator wants me to take a windy scenic route when the main road isn’t exactly rush hour on the A12.  Until we reach the waterfall, which is quite spectacular, and absolutely deserted (apart from the odd mad canoeist). 

Last time we were down this way the waters were quite high, so we decide to the take the opportunity of the better weather to find Kilchurn Castle, which was cut off by the flooded low-lying surrounding countryside before.  (Steve thinks it hilarious that I all but scrape my front splitter on the high lip of the car park on the way in.  And it nearly finishes him off to find I’ve parked with the drivers’ side in a foot of muddy water.  Doh.)  Anyway: we arrive in thick mist and the castle is just a hulking ghostly ruin in the near distance.  An hour looking round, taking in the history and the forbidding atmosphere, and the mist lifts completely.  On our way back to the car there is an absolutely spectacular rainbow over the surrounding valley.  That’s why I say what I do about taking photos in Scotland!!

By the time we get to Glen Coe, the mist is hanging low again over Etive Mhor, but the drive through the Glen is as fun as always.  I adore this place!  We find our Guest House for the next couple of nights, and head out via the Clachaig Inn, down to Fort William.  We take in tea and cake at Glenfinnan (just to have an excuse to drive down there to be honest!), and have a quick stretch of the legs at Neptune’s Staircase and a gawp at the steam train.

We decide to drop the car off at Scorrybreac and walk down to the Claichag Inn – after all, it would be a shame to come all this way and not give their real ales and 300 whiskies a try (not all of them, obviously.)  It’s only 2.5 miles each way, how hard can it be?  Considerably more difficult three sheets to the wind in the pitch black on the way back, I assure you…

Wednesday 4th September

Having exchanged the most angelic of hellos with our hosts’ most cute little girl, I admire the way the sun glides over the side of the mountain.  Steve wants to get me up there today, apparently.  No, not one of his innuendoes, this time he’s serious.  Gulp.  The Secret Valley is where the ancestors (now mine by marriage.  Roll eyes) used to hide the cattle they’d rustled.  So really, Kat, how hard can it be?  Hmmm?

Actually, we nearly made it, and with only minor hysterics.  Three-quarters of the way up the mountain, the stream has swollen and there’s no way across for any but the most intrepid.  Which I am most assuredly not (though have been moreso today than usually).  To be fair, I do give it a shot but it’s one step too far and we’ve no choice but to turn back.  Steve swears he’s metamorphosed into a gazelle on the way back down (on several occasions).  I appear to have been eaten by midges, but strangely, only until about half-way up the mountain.  And half-way back down, when we stop in the same place for a quick breather and a quick gulp of water from the stream.  Looking up, we see an eagle slowly circling the summit, and the RAF boys stage another fly-past.

Knackered, and with glowing feet, we return to our guest house and take a turn around the local nature reserve, Glencoe Lochan, which is literally on our doorstep.  The artificial loch was created by a previous laird, to console his homesick wife who was pining for her native Virginia.  Very sad, but it didn’t work as she apparently left him to return to the home she missed L  Notwithstanding, it’s a beautiful and very peaceful place with several trails through the woodland.  We walked around the lake and the light was just right for taking some great pictures.

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Thursday 5th September

We start our island hopping today, first stop Oban to catch the ferry to Mull.  It’s another beautiful day on glorious roads – but I’m stuck behind the two slowest bikers in the world.  Grrrrr.  At least it gives us a chance to enjoy the weather and the scenery.  It’s lovely to visit Oban once more and reacquaint ourselves with the town and the harbour, though it’s sad to see the Oban Inn is no more – we both have fond memories of that place.  We get a quick fish farming lesson when the two fish transporter boats dock next to each other and transfer their cargo, one to the other, through a sort of vacuum, which ‘sucks’ the fish – water and all – from one boat to the other.  Can’t say whether the fish are bothered or not.  But at least I guess it ensures they’re still ‘fresh’ at their final destination…

First stop on Mull, as it’s still too early to check in to our hotel, is Duart Castle, ancestral seat of the McLeans.  It’s good to know at this point in the trip we’re still in reasonably friendly clan territory, as we learn, amongst other things, that one of the former inhabitants tried to get rid of his wife by stranding her on Lady Rock (one of the tiny islands just off the coast which get submerged at high tide) and that’s how it got it’s name.  The lady survived, but the Campbells got their revenge on McLean at a later date.   A reviving cuppa at their cute teashop and we set off for Tobermory.

I knew the town (the basis for the children’s TV programme Ballamory) was famous for its steep streets, but these really are something else, this is giving me some practice in clutch control!  The road to our hotel is the steepest of them all, so much so that we can hardly at first believe that we’re expected to drive up there.  My car makes it, of course – but it’s going to be another interesting walk to and from the pub tonight!

We head out to MacGoeghans, via a photo stop in the harbour.  Hilarity ensues over several pints of the local brew, and we meet Pete the Potter who is very amusing, though possibly not always 100% truthful.  We also encounter a Johnny Depp/Captain Sparrow lookalike.  He was quite authentic; very aloof.  There is a darts tournament due to start, so we return to the hotel for a nightcap.  Over a couple of half’n’half’s, we meet Tobermory’s answer to Statler and Waldorf.  Ably stooged by a slightly bemused looking Marina, who immigrated from Eastern Europe to a remote Scottish island with her husband.  Who is Mexican.  Go figure…

Friday 6th September

I don’t know if it’s a delayed reaction, but the midge bites I picked up two days ago have not bothered me in the slightest and I was beginning to think it was all an excuse for a bit of Drama Queenery.  Until this morning.  Oh boy do they itch this morning!  And I keep finding more!

We are unfortunately not in time for the Tobermory distillery tour this morning and can’t wait for the next one to start, as we have a ferry to catch.   An hour later, we’re summoning the Ulva ferry to come and row us across.  There were 600 inhabitants on the 7.5m x 2.5m Ulva at one time, mainly crofters.  Now it’s all but abandoned, though a few hardy farming folk remain.  The cottage of one of the last inhabitants of the old way of life remains as a living museum.  I can see how it could be cosy (though it’s on the verge of ruinous now), but on the bleak side; I’m not sure how I’d feel if I were here when the winter winds start to blow, and the snow falls.

We take a short walk round the island before some well-earned tea and cake at the boathouse café, while we wait for the return ferry.  The ferryman is quite chatty and takes a lovely picture of the two of us on the way.

Time to knuckle down and take a deep breath: it’s 3.5 hours to the border, we have a tank of diesel, a packet of Haribos, it’ll be dark soon enough… and I could have been wearing contact lenses.  Let’s step on it...  By the time we get to the Old Rectory in Annan, I don’t think I could be more tired from driving (oh how little I know) and tempers are getting a tiny bit worn.  The B&B is warm, welcoming and relaxing however and after a bottle of Chianti and a yummy pizza, accord is restored.

Saturday 7th September

We have another lovely breakfast, though my constitution is starting to rebel at cooked breakfast overload.  Our landlord is friendly and chatty, even giving us a few tips on B&B ownership.  In return, Steve is able to give him a few tips on his drainage problems.  Win/win!

Another long drive sees us in Matlock later in the afternoon, in a pub filled with bikers.  Steve’s band is playing their party tonight and they’ve taken over the pub where we’re due to be staying.  The frayed landlord leaves the queue waiting at the bar to show us up a gothically winding staircase to a surprisingly spacious room, before dashing back to his patient customers.  We drop our bags and head out to check out the arrangements for tonight.

The gig goes well – the boys are on for 2.5hrs straight.  When we get back to the pub in the early hours, it’s no surprise to find a lock-in in progress.  I earn myself a JD: it turns out the reason the pub was so chaotic earlier is because the landlady got taken to hospital with a nasty gash on her arm.  It’s been stitched nice and neatly but the iodine is leaking through the bandage and looks a little unsightly.  Her husband is nervous in case the stitches have split, so before I realise what I’m saying, I’ve offered to take a look and rebandage.  I’ve taken First Aid courses since 2006 but this is the first time I’ve bandaged in anger… all goes well and even if I do say so myself, it looks very neat.  The landlady is fine, some minor wound moppage is all that’s required.

Sunday 8th September

Having had a late and mad night the night before, and in the knowledge that we have a long drive ahead of us, we’re not sure if we’re going to make breakfast, or just make a start.  Our remarkably chirpy landlord is an excellent cook however, so we’re glad we did.  We have an early morning visit from a little angelic-faced, fair-haired nosy pixie; that’ll teach us to check the door’s shut properly!

Our drive back to Glasgow is a mad one, partly because I can’t wait to get to our destination, the wonderful, mad, relaxing, quirky, welcoming, luxurious Waters Edge B&B, right on the edge of Loch Lomond.   We can only stay one night here, so I’m determined to make the most of it.  This visit, we’re in the Garden Room, which has a terrace with a log burner, looking across the garden and over to the loch.  We park our gently steaming car and crack open the complimentary whisky, since we don’t have to drive anywhere else today.  Steve throws a log in the burner, kicks back and gently dozes…. I’m in no hurry, I’ve got a great book to finish on my Kindle and no better place to relax with it.

An hour later, I give him a gentle nudge and we wander down to Duck Bay Marina for some dinner.  The weather takes a change while we’re there and I can’t resist popping out with my camera to try and capture the rainbows over the loch, as the light changes from dusk to night (thanks to Steve for popping back to pick up my other lens for me!)

Monday 9th September

The deal at the Waters Edge is that all guests eat breakfast together on one big communal table.  Having been here before, we are ready for it, but it can be a little daunting before the ice is broken.  Our hosts then cook one set breakfast every morning for everyone, which can be tweaked slightly for individual tastes.  This morning unfortunately – though it’s yet another thing about this place I’ve been looking forward to – is smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, which is not something I eat.  It’ll do me good however to stock up on toast only and forego a cooked breakfast…  Our companions today are a very interesting Aussie couple, mainly.  We spend a very pleasant hour discussing places everyone’s been, getting their take on places we’d like to visit, and exchanging advice on what to see in the local area.

(I’m so disappointed we can’t spend any longer here, but my brain is already hatching a plot to get some of our most favourite people to come back with us within the year… ;) )

Today, we continue our island hopping by crossing from Kennacraig to Islay.  (We take some time out to stretch our legs briefly in Inveraray.  We can’t stay long though in case we get rumbled: we’re MacDonalds deep in Campbell country.  Gulp.)  Our ‘home’ for two nights is right on the other side of the Peninsula around Port Ellen, next to the lighthouse.  So picturesque it would have been rude not to take copious photos… We take a trip down to Bowmore and reacquaint ourselves the Harbour Inn, then stock up on local brew and nibbles, before heading back for an early night.  Driving down the unmade road towards our lighthouse almost feels like being at home.  Except Clobbs Yard doesn’t have a sheer drop (albeit of 3 feet) down to the beach on one side, or a couple of the most remote cemetaries, looking out over the harbour.

Tuesday 10th September

This morning we’re back to a filling breakfast, as we’ve designated it distillery day.  First up is Islay’s newest, Kilchoman.  Since Steve has to drive, we share our free dram (for which read, I drink it and he has a sip…)  Not as peaty as other Islay whiskies, but maybe it’ll become more distinctive over time.  Next stop, Bruichladdich (‘brew-laddie’).  I’m not massively enthusiastic about Bruichladdich whisky (though I don’t dislike it), so am persuaded to have a try of their gin instead.  The Botanist is distilled from 31 different plant species, including 22 that are native to Islay.  Now, I’m not a big fan of gin, I find it very harsh and too acidic on the tongue.  But this is lovely!  If you could drink freshness, flowers and springtime, this would be it.  I know at least two sets of friends who would love this…

We’ve stretched anticipation to the limit and it’s time to head to our favourite distillery of them all, Laphraoig.  We join a fairly large tour group, some of whom have come across the globe to be here, some of whom are fellow Friends, and others who become Friends at the end of the tour.  I’ve been looking forward to stocking up on Laphraoig goodies, and we make off with glasses, a bottle of Triple Wood (nom nom nom), a whisky book and various other interesting items.  We had planned on a late lunch at the Ardbeg distillery next door (their café is amazing) but unfortunately are too late for anything other than a cream tea.  Oh the hardship!

Before heading down for a wander on the beach, we try to persuade the local hairy cows to pose for photos, with varying success.  I’ve been itching to get some pictures of the cemetaries, which are incredibly atmospheric, but unfortunately their gates are locked, so I have to settle for just wider angle landscapes.  When we scramble down to the beach, we make an interesting discovery.  A part- ruined tiny room, without a roof, but with the most amazing tiled/mosaic floor.  It looks very much like a tiny chapel, being only a few feet squared.  (When we quiz our landlady about it the next morning, she explains that there used to be a private path from the large manor house on the main road, down to the beach (we’ve seen the house while driving past; the road now separates it from where the path must have been).  The structure is a permanent bathing hut, so that the ladies from the house could come down and change before enjoying their private section of beach.)

Having now worked up a good appetite, we head back to Port Ellen and enjoy a fish supper at the newly finished Islay Hotel.  We agree this would make a very pleasant base for next time (!) On a whim, we take a stroll around the harbour before getting back in the car, and are rewarded by catching sight of the sinuous gliding shape of a seal, just under the water right next to the harbour wall. 

Wednesday 11th September

I don’t believe it!  Why do I always catch a virus when we go on holiday?  I’ve slept very badly, plagued by weird nightmares and with a raging sore throat.  Back to the mainland, we have an hour to find some diesel and medication, before catching another ferry to Arran.

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I fall in love with Arran from my first sight of Lochranza harbour, with the ruined castle standing watch behind it.  The mist and overcast clouds disperse, leaving a beautiful afternoon.  We stop briefly at the castle, as we know we’ll come back and explore it properly, and then pop into the distillery shop.  Another quick free dram confirms our plan to join a tour in the morning!

Being an avid Gabaldonite, and therefore determined to find some proper standing stones, I persuade Steve to drive us to the other side of the island, where some are marked on the map.  We almost miss the turning into the car park, and there are no obvious stones as yet but we reason that they probably wouldn’t be just sat by the roadside, ominously waiting, so park up and follow the signs, which indicate 200 metres.  So we start walking.  And walking.  Finally: is that one?  In the distance?  Well... yes.  But it’s only one…  Come on, we’ve come this far, let’s just take a look over one final ridge.   Well, there’s something over there that looks promising… looks like a tourist info board.

We trek over, sure now that the signpost actually meant 2,000 metres.  And are very glad to have made the final effort, against our better judgement.  There are six stone circles at the Machrie Moore Standing Stone site, dating back to 1800BC, with Goatfell rising behind them.  I thought the cemetaries on Islay were atmospheric, but this really is something else.  I’d like to think I’m not a fanciful person, but something about the way the weather and the light changes incredibly fast while we’re here, really sets your eeriness antennae to vibrate.  This is definitely enhanced by the abandoned and ruinous croft and outbuildings that share the site.  I joke that someone on Grand Designs would be bound to ‘just love the way they’ve incorporated the tree into the living space’ but no-one else seems to find that amusing…

Having negotiated the wiggly roads back to Lamlash and surprised our landlady (who was actually expecting us tomorrow), we cross the road for dinner in the Drift Inn.  Which has an altogether more traditional, and welcoming, atmosphere. 

Thursday 12th September

This morning the weather is definitely traditional: the sky is lowering and sullen.  For the most part however, we’ll be indoors or in the car, so are undeterred.

The Isle of Arran distillery is also fairly new, work having originally started in 1994.  Our tour guide is a Frankie Boyle lookalike (and soundalike), with the same dryness of delivery but a more accessible sense of humour.  We opt to try the Gold Medal 12yo and the 14yo at the end of the tour, and then pick up a bottle of 14yo in their shop.  Peaty like Laphraoig and a long harshness which is actually surprisingly pleasant (almost makes Laphraoig seem smooth, if you can imagine such a thing).

While we’re here, we take time to properly explore Lochranza Castle but the weather is taking a decided turn for the worst – even by our standards – by the time we’re done.   We pick up more alcohol at Arran Ales, after joining their tour also.  The poor tour guide looks as bad as I feel, bless her, but she does a good job.  We step briefly into the leather shop, where I’m grudgingly relieved of a whole pound for some offcuts to use as necklace thongs (‘I’d buy one of his handbags if he wasn’t so bleeding miserable’ opines our landlady the next morning.  Ha!) and we take a peak up the intriguing path to the castle, but since we’re past visiting hours, decide to return next morning.  A quick pitstop in the wine shop café fails to give the weather time enough to pass over and one last drive - to Kildonan - finally proves to us that we’d do better with an early visit to the pub, and wet our insides instead with local ale.

Friday 13th September

Our last day sees a return to brighter weather and we’re up good and early again for breakfast, as our landlord is off to work at the distillery.  We meet a Polish girl whose boat in from the mainland was late yesterday, and therefore she missed her onward boat to the Holy Isle, which is right opposite our B&B.  A very interesting and well-travelled young lady, quite mature and well cultivated for her age.  Holy Isle is home mainly to birds, but also houses a Buddhist retreat, and our fellow breakfaster is off there for 5 days of silence.  Literally, this is the last time she will speak for nearly a week.  I still don’t know how anyone can manage that…

We’re still too early this morning to take a tour of the castle, but it’s lovely to have the extensive and beautiful grounds to ourselves, and we vow to return to see the castle itself another time.  While I take extensive pictures, I have to stay mindful of the time as we have the first of several ferries to catch.  We’re back to the mainland today, so first stop is Ardrossan and then on to Largs for our final B&B, before heading on down the coast to Wemys Bay and over to Bute.

We spend a blood-curdling hour or so exploring the ruinous 13th Century castle on Rothesay and then wander aimlessly around town for a while.  It’s a shame to see this once thriving Victorian town past its best, but this is a remote spot and while it’s sad, perhaps decline is inevitable.

Back in Largs, we eat in the George Inn, enjoy a pint on the way home in the Anchor Inn (the latter being rather more raucous than the former), and a nightcap back at the B&B.  The rest of the weekend is to be spent driving home, at a rather more leisurely pace than the drive up, with an overnight stop in Sheffield