Sunday, March 22, 2015

Scotland the Brave

Travel distances are always hard to judge in a foreign country. Coming from rural Australia, long trips are nothing new to us and we are used to making a 6hr round trip to Melbourne for sporting or cultural events. On the other hand, our vast NZ experience of winding roads warns us that what looks close on the map can be a long time on the road. We weighed up both these understandings when we were planning this trip and decided 4hrs or 200 miles was probably a manageable day for us. With this in mind we booked a cottage way up in the north of Scotland at Reraig, near the Kyle of Lochalsh as the base for our tour of the Highlands.

After a night at the Travelodge at the airport (perfectly adequate for a night's stay), we picked up our rental car - why is this always such a stressful experience? We'd already chosen and paid for a car online but getting the keys was difficult.

Do you want extra insurance for another squizillion pounds?
No, its covered by our travel insurance.
Och, no, not in my experience.
Self doubt starts to creep in. Maybe it's not. Pretty sure it is. Let's cross our fingers and hope for the best.
Do ye want road side assist for an extra few pounds a day?
An extra few how many pounds? Shouldn't you assist us if we need help?
No, if you have a flat tyre you'll have to pay for us to come and change it.
Pretty sure we can change a flat tyre ourselves.
Well no, because there's no spare tyre in the cars.
Whaaat? Who supplies a car without a spare? (Have since found a spare tyre in the boot!)
Would ye like to upgrade the car to one with diesel?
What's the extra charge on that?
Man says something unintelligible in a very strong Scot's brogue.
Do we want to take the company's offer of cheaper fuel by dropping it off half full?
OK, yes, just give us the keys before it gets dark and we'll give you complete freedom to charge our credit card with whatever you think is fair!

With an inadequate map and a sense of new adventure, and at least driving on the right (left) side of the road, we manoeuvred our way out of Edinburgh and onto the A9. Taine is a great William Wallace fan so we made a detour to Stirling to have a look at the Wallace monument. Struggling with the inadequate map and the loss of our Swiss hosts wifi we decided to buy a couple of UK sims for our phones so we could use google maps to help with the navigation. Ironically we have NO phone service in Northern Scotland but our little cottage has excellent wifi!

The A9 is a mostly dual lane highway and so it was easy driving for the first 100 miles and we were anticipating an early arrival in Reraig. Once you get up around the mountains in the Craignorms National Park though and particularly when you turn off on the A86 to Kyle of Lochalsh, the road becomes very windy. In fact, if it weren't for the ancient ruins and stone cottages along the route you would swear you were in the South Island of NZ around Queenstown and Wanaka. The views are spectacular with every bend revealing a new loch surrounded by pristine forest and snow capped mountains. Because it was such a beautiful sunny day the reflection off the lochs created a magical optical illusion making it impossible to discern the water from the land from the sky.

The only stop we made was at a little place called Dalwhinnie at a curious (Geoff says weird) little cafe near the bike tracks. My scone had seen better days (several of them I reckon) but the boys' pies were edible. This was our first exposure to Scottish food and not an encouraging one.

We arrived at our little cottage just on dusk. Right across the road from the banks of Loch Alsh, it is a perfect blend of old architecture with contemporary and comfortable amenities. The caretaker had turned the heating on for us so we were toasty warm.

The village of Reraig
Today we took the opportunity for our first 'rest hour', staying in bed till 9 and then having a leisurely breakfast before we headed just a few miles down the road to Eileen Donan Castle, an authentic castle first erected in the 800s, destroyed after the battle at Culloden and then extensively renovated right up until this century. Because of its long history the castle is an amalgamation of all its eras, with furniture, artefacts and photos spanning a thousand years. I found the contradiction of 17th century furniture topped with photos of the current owner's children a little confusing but nonetheless we enjoyed the experience.

Eilean Donan
From there we went 'over the sea' to Skye which is just a few miles in the other direction from our cottage and accessed by a bridge. By then I was starving and the plan was to find a cafe over looking the water for lunch. Unfortunately this part of Scotland pretty much shuts down until Easter and particularly so on Sundays. We drove as far as Broadford and then turned back because we couldn't find anything open. My initial impression of Skye was tainted by hunger and the freezing wind so we'll go back later in the week for a better look.

The bridge to Skye
We wound our way back home via Plockton. This fascinating little harbourside village proclaims itself as the 'Jewel of the North'. It wasn't glittering today but it did have a shop open so we bought some ice creams and wandered down the main street wondering at the resilience and hardiness of the people who inhabit this rocky and windswept part of the world. Just driving from one place to another is a mission, with the one car width roads providing an interesting game of russian roulette as you round the bends.

The harbour at Plockton
A bracing walk across the foreshore of the Loch at low tide finished off our day before we escaped to the warmth of our cottage and some home cooked (heated up) haddock and shepherd's pie.

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