Have you seen the film ‘Inception’? A superb and complex film from Christopher Nolan that was a wonderful tale of a dream, within a dream, within a dream, within a dream… which ends with you still unsure which dream you are in! Our recent holiday had an ‘inception-ish’ feel to it – an island off an island off an island off an island…
Living in the UK you sometimes forget that we are an island nation with a coastline dotted with more islands – islands of great beauty, islands full of tourists and places to visit, islands frozen in time, secluded islands and even abandoned islands. We have them all.
2018 bought us our first taste of island hopping using the ever reliable Calmac Ferries to island hop on a very small scale but one that certainly whetted our appetite for more.
Home base was the Isle of Mull - an island renowned for its wildlife with a population of just 2500 people and a tiny network of single track roads to get you around. Grass growing through the B roads and some hair raising but memorable journeys round sheer cliff faces (well that’s what it felt like)! Plenty of passing places but plenty of people either selfish or unaware of the etiquette of driving round the island – we had more than one ‘stand off’ with motorhome drivers with no desire to allow you to pass.
But as with a lot of similar locations on the wild Scottish West Coast and its islands there are huge opportunities to use these as jumping off points for taking your explorations further with other islands and remote destinations in easy reach.
The first place we aimed for was the world renowned island of Iona – tucked away just off the southern most peninsula on Mull’s west coast and a short 10 minute sailing from Fionnphort using (you may have guessed) one of Cal Mac’s regular services. For those that haven’t been anywhere on the Scottish isles if your image of these ferry ports is like Dover then you may be a bit disappointed (or surprised). With one street , about a dozen properties, a café and a cow inhabited car park it certainly isn’t a major centre of attention (or so we thought!)
Ferry tickets bought we duly got onboard – the ferry here is passenger only though the post van was coming off before we got on board – and waited to set sail. Then the fun started as 5 coaches pulled in one after the other and disgorged their occupants who all made their way en masse to board the ferry. If you’ve watched the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds film the similarities to the ferry scene in that was uncanny. We assumed and imagined that these were tourist trips from the mainland having sailed from Oban and then made the dash along the single track roads to Fionnphort. The thought of the mad dash from the ferry made us chuckle (and thankful we hadn’t met them in the opposite direction!)
Anyway, a gloriously smooth sailing later and we landed on Iona. Within minutes we were lost in a world of tranquillity, seclusion and genuine wilderness with some of the best beaches and views we’d ever seen (the glorious weather probably helped too!). Where the passengers all went we aren’t sure but despite its peaceful setting the island is prepared for the tourist onslaught.
So our first trip from an island to an island to an island and we felt like Robinson Crusoe – sat on a white sandy beach in the sun with no-one else in sight. However we did have a return ticket so very little chance of being stranded.
We had to wait for the following day for that and our second island off an island venture to the even more remote Island of Ulva – careful with the pronunciation!
Ulva really is a step back in time from the unique way that you signal for the ferry - by sliding a small white door on a board on the wall to show a red square and then wait for the ferry to come across from the island (definitely not Cal Mac!) to the history of the island and its fall from a home for over 600 people, the desperate plight following the clearances to a small community owned venture of just 6 hardy residents.
Once on the island (off an island, off an island) the remote wilderness and beauty was breath taking from basalt columns, to Golden Eagles and abandoned cottages. It was so wild that we ended up getting a little unsure of the path we were walking so decided to backtrack a few miles rather than run the risk of missing the last ferry back at 5.00pm!
With ourselves to ourselves and some stunning cloudy weather it did feel like we were at the end of the earth despite at some points actually being able to pick out our own little cottage half way up a mountain on the far side of Loch Na Keal on Mull itself.
Again though despite its remoteness there was a great café/restaurant - The Boathouse - with fresh caught fish and some great cakes. It was so good we did ponder coming back just for the food later in the week – we didn’t, so maybe another time?
The ferry back took longer than the journey across – not because of any technical issues - it was just that the ferryman had spotted the resident Otters in the water so he stopped for a few minutes so we could have a good look at them!
And that was it – we could have gone to several other destinations – including Gometra (an island off Ulva itself connected by a bridge – getting very deep now) or Staffa, Lungha and the rest, all served by a variety of vessels of all sizes but we ran out of time.
So no sea-faring adventures to put Nelson to shame but certainly enough to spark something that we will definitely come back to in years to come and continue our journeys to some genuinely remote parts of these glorious British Isles.
There’s nothing that typifies the type of holiday we love more than single track roads - especially ones with grass in the middle of them - running through stunning scenery with a new vista at every corner and , of course, plenty passing places just in case you meet a fellow traveller coming in the opposite direction!
For the last couple of years, with our regular trips up to Scotland, we’ve grown well used to driving on a variety of roads that in a map book are usually the ones indicated by a dotted line. Not that these are the only types of road up in the highlands – there are some fantastic “normal” roads – usually in really good condition – real blacktop stuff - and which, because of the lack of traffic, actually bring back some long forgotten memories of when driving was a pleasure - not the nose to tail bedlam it can be these days.
And don’t think single tracks are just B roads or unnamed roads – significant chunks of A road in the highlands – Sutherland and Caithness in particular are single track too – always interesting meeting a coach or truck coming the opposite direction midway through a deserted glen.
This may all sound a bit off putting, it can be, but with a bit of sense and patience it all becomes second nature and hugely enjoyable.
Go to anywhere with a lot of single track roads – take our holiday destination this year Mull as an example - and you usually find a lot of guidance for how to drive on single track roads. Don’t ignore it – it is a big thing.
There are some basic rules and etiquette.
Use the passing places – they are, in the main, sign posted and spaced frequently and unlike some of the horrendous and claustrophobic English country lanes penned in by stone walls, you can usually see far enough ahead to make a decision where to pull over.
Don’t park in them! They are there to be used as a passing place (the name is a bit of a giveaway) so, no matter if it’s the best view ever don’t park in one to take a photo as that will be the time when a truck is coming the other way and meets a bus or something and you’re in the middle being cursed at in Gaelic. This has never happened to us. We have however done some cursing (in English) at some idiots who thought that a passing place looked like a good spot for a picnic as a tractor bore down on us.
There are some places that are extended and will fit a few cars in, but the majority just won’t or can't so don’t!
Always take note of any passing places you’ve just passed. This is invaluable if you have to reverse into one especially if you meet something on a bend or the occasional drivers who use their own rules and make you reverse uphill whilst steadfastly refusing to back up about a meter to a passing place on their side of the road (a real life example from this year!).
Always use the places on your “side” of the road ie the left – you may get some people that swerve into places on the other side of the road – very confusing and dangerous. Often a driver will wait on the road near a place with enough room for you to drive into it and pass them. So don’t think no space on my side and keep bearing down on the other driver. Use your spatial awareness – and manners (and indicators too).
Also use passing places to let other drivers overtake you. If it’s a local they’ll be comfortable on the road so let them past. Indicate and pull into a passing place that has a clear view of the road ahead so they can see there’s nothing coming. They’ll thank you for this, usually the emergency indicator double blink. We had several coaches pull over for us this year as well as us pulling over for various vehicles – more often than not the postie!
Always say thanks – usually just by a wave of the hand and also acknowledge anyone thanking you. You don’t need to be too elaborate with this, just stick to the familiar hand up rather than some sort of elaborate hip-hop handshake routine. We noticed quite a lot of camper van passengers undertaking this duty whilst their partners focussed on keeping themselves on the road. Probably a wise option on some of the roads with eye boggling narrow widths.
Oh and if you’re using SatNav double the length of time it tells you to get somewhere. The roads all are 60mph however to be honest if you attempted this speed you’d either be in with a chance of being world rally champ or in intensive care. 60mph isn’t a target - drive safely and also enjoy taking your time with journeys through some of the greatest landscapes on earth, whatever the weather. Plus, as you will have picked up from some of our photos, some of the 4 legged "locals" also like the roads (and are hefty too - especially the coos!) and they definitely don't understand passing places!
Finally, there is a sense of driving comraderie that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. It’s almost as though we’re all in the shared challenge of driving on the roads together so let’s look after each other. Weird but you can sense this. Maybe an extension of the lifestyle and pace of life up there?
So it is simple really and also the roads aren’t that tricky or challenging...... in the main. There is a well-documented exception though that we drove on in 2016 as part of the early stages of our North Coast 500 trip - the fearsome and rightly notorious Bealach Na Ba. Rising over 2000 feet, over a mountain, with hairpin bends a-plenty and gradients over 1 in 5 in many places. All single track and with many passing places. More on this unforgettable experience can be found on our NC500 pages.
Seriously, not for the faint-hearted but a stunning summit view and to be honest if you can do this you can do anything. Or so we thought until the day we took the coastal road around the north of Mull – but I’ll pass on that one till another time.
It’s odd how sometimes something just becomes “a thing”. If you think about activities, hobbies, interests or things you do it’s hard to recall how you started doing them or what the catalyst was.
This year on our Mull trip we suddenly realised we had a bit of “a thing” for CalMac ferries.
If you go anywhere with a port or a view of the sea or islands from Scotland’s West Coast chances are, if you haven’t been on one, you will at least probably have seen one of the Caledonian MacBrayne fleet ploughing their way across and between the mainland and the numerous isles that make up one of the most unique landscapes in the world.
Up to August 17th this year we had never been on one but had thought about doing a bit of island hopping for a number of years – finally exploring some of the parts of Scotland we had never been to. We’d known and heard about Cal Mac for a number of years but it was in 2017 when we went to Ullapool that our interest was well and truly sparked.
Twice a day every day the ferry for Stornaway arrived and departed at the Ullapool terminal and it quickly became a part of our holiday up there taking photos of the ferry – “Loch Seaforth” - either on its journey or in port as we marvelled at the way that the vehicles were marshalled and loaded on board and wondered what awaited the passengers on the other side?
The hustle and bustle of Ullapool with a ferry in was a sharp contrast to its usual benign state. Plus the views of the evening sailing with the ship literally sailing into the sunset on its way to the Outer Hebrides really got the imagination going.
So this year we decided enough was enough and booked a week on Mull meaning at last we’d be able to set foot on one of the Cal Mac fleet.
Rather like long distance travel on a train there is something still a bit nostalgic and mysterious about sea travel in such beautiful surroundings as those on the Scottish West Coast.
Our first trip on a ferry was probably more eventful for what you couldn’t see rather than the anticipated glorious surroundings - as the sea mist rolled in, the waves got a bit choppy and the rain came down - if you want to see this for yourself see "Ferry in your Jersey".
Undeterred though during the week we used the fantastic ferry to Iona from Mull and also looked out for the various services that sailed through the Sound of Mull past the island.
We travelled back to the mainland via the Fishnish – Lochaline service and we headed up to Mallaig for our Saturday night stopover purely and simply as we’d never been! Mallaig is a transport dream as it is not only a port for Cal Mac services to Skye and the smaller islands – the delightfully named Eigg, Rum, Muck and Canna – but is also a terminus for the twice daily Jacobite steam trains from Fort William that go over the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct (more about that some other time!).
By this stage taking photos of ferries had become an integral part of our range of subjects – especially in dramatic settings or something different than a straightforward shot of the vessel itself. So imagine our delight when we found out on our evening walk that vessels are moored at Mallaig overnight - cue some sunset pictures of the ferries at rest.
We’re not sure that Cal Mac spotting is a thing, if it isn’t then it should be – it is for us! There’s a lot more to it than just “spotting” the ferries though (for the record we saw 11 of the 31 strong fleet on our travels – travelling on 3 of them). For us it’s trying to get photos of them in their “natural” surroundings – the sea lochs and ports in the west coast wilds.
But they are also much more than a tourist attraction - they are the lifeblood for and the only way that many communities can get access to the mainland or receive vital supplies, hence the ownership of the service by the Scottish Government.
Our appetites have been whetted and maybe some more adventurous routes will be travelled over the next few years - there’s more than enough options to keep us going. But whatever happens that sense of yearning for travel and adventure we got by watching the comings and goings of a Scottish port, marvelling at the ferries themselves and recognising the skill and hardwork of those that work on them has been well and truly ignited and not even a damp first ever crossing in howling wind and rain has put it out.
Full details and information on Caledonian MacBrayne can be found here.
How will you remember the summer of 2018? (Doesn’t it feel like it’s finished now!) long hot sunny days, nights when you can’t get cool and definitely can’t sleep, a lovely staycation in the good old UK..aah those summer nights...
Not sure I remember a similar long period of hot sunny weather and it's hard to remember when it first started. We were in Nethy Bridge at the end of May and the weather was already scorching. It seems to just have gone on and on since then with record temperatures, office workers demanding to wear shorts, warnings for people to avoid beaches in Cornwall, road surfaces melting and surely everyone having the best holidays ever in this glorious weather.
We were days away from a hosepipe ban up here in the North West with the scorched earth look the new norm for gardens, but then something happened. Along came the rain, torrential at times, bringing flooding and general gloom. Friend’s family weddings disrupted by storms in Wales washing away their marquee and reception – the same storm blowing away another friend's tent in the middle of their family holiday leading them to declare they were “never camping again” and then it was time for our much anticipated summer break.
Now I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees their future holidays through those proverbial rose tinted glasses! Long hot summer days, meals outside, glasses of wine and freshly prepared food, walks by the sea, climbs up mountains and sunsets lots of sunsets. All captured on our cameras and ready to post on our Instagram (@MWGU50 if you don’t already follow us!), Facebook and here.
Imagine our surprise as the big day loomed and we checked the forecast – Clouds? Rain? Gales? That couldn’t be right, that’s not our holiday! What should we pack? Shorts, woolly jumpers and hats? Probably better take the Smidge (those Scottish midges are very unpredictable and like to chew on one of us!)
We set off on our summer 2018 Scotland road trip (all roads seem to lead us there!) late at night in torrential rain making the drive up the M6 to Lockerbie a stressful time. The rain was so hard we couldn’t see in front of us (use your lights people!) and the required nip to the loo stop resulted in us getting soaked (from the weather that is!). We arrived to our first stop to find a balcony overlooking Annandale Water with a lovely walk round the lake which would all have been perfect if not for the rain!
Never mind, we’re always optimistic day 2 would surely be better? Indeed it was as we journeyed a couple of hours higher up to stop for lunch beside some nuclear subs (that was a really sobering moment as we ate our mozerella salad and realised how close we were to weapons of mass destruction). Sun's shining, Loch Long is beautiful, time to get the cameras out – cue torrential rain part two and a hasty retreat to the car. In Arnie’s words “I’ll (or we’ll) be back”!
Never mind (again!) lets continue our journey to our next stop in Inveraray – lots to photograph, time for a walk, admire the scenery… but we were met by that all too familiar rainy day sight in the UK. Steamed up shop windows, tourists wandering aimlessly in their anoraks, queuing for cups of tea in quaint little tea shops and the sad sight of children who would rather be doing anything other than this. There was a brief period of sunshine, so (excitedly) out came our cameras, for about five minutes til the heavens opened again! After a lovely evening meal at the Samphire Restaurant, we ventured out again to admire the clouds rolling across Loch Fyne – should have known better as they rolled above us and I am sure you can guess the rest!
Day 3 – this wet weather tale is nearly complete – the trip to Mull. Our plans had built in time to explore Oban before we caught the ferry to Mull, but once again torrential rain saw us spending a very long time shopping and drinking coffee in Tesco followed by lunch in a very steamed up car on Tesco car park! This is hardly holiday inspiration for you I am sure!
The ferry to the Isle of Mull was supposed to be (in my holiday dreams) us basking in glorious sunshine on the top deck capturing bird life, ships and the beautiful views with our cameras. Instead we had to empty our case to find some warm jumpers ( a vest top, long sleeved t shirt, hoodie and a coat and I was still cold!) just to wait in the queue and the boat trip was something else! I’m sure hardened seamen would disagree, but it almost felt like we were on the Poseidon adventure! Waves crashing over the boat, wind howling round your ears, rain and spray soaking you! We were real sailors (!) staying on deck outside the whole trip, mostly by ourselves, watching ghostly ships pass in the mist and finishing our day soaked to the skin, freezing cold, but strangely exhilarated by the whole experience!
Arrival on Mull in the late afternoon to dark skies and heavy rain, single track roads and one shop en route (hence the large amount of time spent in Tesco Oban!) 30 minutes to our destination along the side of a stormy loch past free roaming cows and sheep who watch your every move and the final stretch of road to our holiday cottage on the slopes of Ben More looking like a scene from a horror film! No mobile signal since we left the ferry, very dodgy internet in the cottage, weather forecast for the week rain , rain and more rain.
Here comes the summer?
Life and other