We drove on, heading towards our next destination, the Applecross peninsula, geographically close to Skye but separated by a spine of mountains. We took a quick stop at the Eileen Dunnan Castle, situated on a small spit of land sticking out into the loch. It was a pretty scene, though it was quite crowded.
We decided not to go inside, and instead continued on the Wester Ross Coastal Road towards Applecross. Just before heading over the famously treacherous mountain road that leads to Applecross, we stopped in at the Kishorn Seafood Bar, yet another of the highlands’ prized seafood establishments. We ate some succulent scallops in butter and mussels cooked simply as we sat in the sun–another truly outstanding meal.
We soon arrived at the single track Bealach Na Ba, with its huge warning sign ‘not for learner drivers’ and its cautions about hairpin bends. Our Golf was keen, and up the pass we went, the single track road not disappointing for either beauty or difficulty. The pass climbs up a deep valley, soon reaching several hairpin switchbacks before arriving at the top. The views back were nice, and we stopped at the top for a quick break before descending to Applecross.
We found Applecross truly magical. After checking in at the Hartfield House, a hostel with sparse but very welcome accommodation (finally, a shower and a bed!), we got a map of Applecross’s trails and walked through the forest into town. We passed by the remains of the Applecross estate, with its proud country mansion and its large garden whose traces were still visible in the forest. We passed the community filling station, whose proceeds are used to fund preservation work, and looked out across its tidal bay, whose sand stretches for a couple hundred metres. The moss on the walls, the trees, the serene houses–it was an oasis in a wild land.
We reached the famed Applecross Inn, a vibrant pub that is the peninsula’s main gathering spot, with views across the sea to the Isles in the distance. The host chatted with us for a bit, and we had a drink outside while we waited for a table (Scotland loves dogs–and obviously Cash was allowed inside). We were soon seated at the same table as another couple, and we had a great dinner conversation (the host came by, very proud of his matchmaking abilities), discussing Trump, how tourism has changed Scotland for better and worse, stories from youth, midges, country life and the weather. They had just gotten done biking a tough cross-country route, and were staying in their van–when she recommended a mountain, her partner suggested that it might be ‘too technical’ for us. Our favourite story was about underage drinking in the guy’s village a long time ago–an early teen had come into the pub and asked for vodka, and, with tourists watching, the barkeep said loudly: ‘if you’re going to drink underage in my pub, you’d better drink beer.’ We stayed for a long while, talking with some others about our dog, and with the host, who goes out alone in his boat most mornings to catch fish to sell to the pub. Our food was delectable, a monkfish fish and chips (best we’d ever had), some chowder, and a duck salad. Overall, another great Scottish pub experience. We walked back to the Hartfield House as the sun was setting over the water.
When we awoke we walked to the Walled Garden, the walled garden of the Applecross estate which had once fallen into deep disrepair. When we got past the rock wall, we entered a lush, wild garden, beautiful plants in bloom each way we turned. There was a vegetable patch, hanging flowers–the work We sat to eat at the restaurant at the end, and learned from an older guy watering the flowers that years ago someone named John had taken it upon himself to rejuvenate the garden, and with help brought it to its present state. The wall is to provide the plants respite from the harsh Scottish climate. The food, a full Scottish with three meats, beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms, was a solid way to start our day, and we loved sitting in the sun.
We walked back to our car, and drove all the way past town to the Applecross Photo Gallery, with the promise of free coffee. The gallery is set above the sea with a beautiful view out to the Isles, and the walls are lined with prints. One of the photographers (or perhaps the only photographer) regaled the group of people there with stories of a freezing morning sat atop Ben Eighe, where he camped mistakenly with his summer rather than winter sleeping bag. The sunrise he captured was stunning. We bout a card with a shot of the Applecross Inn, and then drove up to the town’s picturesque church, which was a longstanding site of a monastic order (though the leader was forced out many centuries ago). We continued north along the coastal road, a winding single track road with views of pretty crofts dotting the seaside. The drive was classic West Highlands, as harrowing as it was beautiful.
We were en route to Lochinver, in the sparsely populated far northwest corner, and to get there we took several two lane ‘high-speed’ roads. We stopped over at the Torridon General Store, recommended from the guidebook, and had coffees and great cakes while we looked out on the water and listened to the locals natter away. At some point we stopped at the Callasaja Gorge, an incredibly deep and narrow gorge with a waterfall and a swaying suspension bridge over it.
Eventually we passed Ullapool, a town that’s the biggest in the northwest, and were soon in Assynt, a region that looks different from any other in Scotland (and, we’d get, any other in the world). It is pockmarked with small, blue lochans and huge lochs, and tiny rises and falls in the land throughout that eventually all ramble to the sea. Amidst all this are mountains that tower over it all, each a lone peak surrounded by the peaty land.
We wanted to do two hikes while up there. The first we did en route to Lochinver, a mountain called Stac Pollaidh, whose top looks like a series of tendrils reaching to the sky. The hike was about two hours total, an excellent path around the base of the mountain with an offshoot that climbed up to the saddle on the mountain’s middle. The climb was steep, but in terms of effort to reward it was the best climb we’d ever done.
From the top there was a commanding view of the whole landscape, a series of winding waters and lochs next to a rugged coastline. We could see several peaks all around us, but the one that most captured our attention was Suilven, our next day’s objective, rising sphinx like out of the peat. We spent some time on the summit ridge, with RM scrambling a bit but not making it to the summit. Cash, we had learned, is not a big scrambler, despite his outsized self confidence. We got back to the car a bit muddy (it hadn’t rained for a while, yet the ground retains water) and ready to get to town.
We soon reached Lochinver, a port town that’s still a centre for fishing in the region, and checked in to the Rose B & B, with views out over the water. We were greeted by the friendly Dutch proprietor, who said that he wanted to live somewhere he could see mountains and water from his house. Mission accomplished, as the crown of Suilven was visible from the big windows looking at the water.
Eventually we walked into town and quickly realised that it was 9:05–and all the restaurants closed at 9. With some midges closing in, we made a snap decision: to the pub! The Caberfiedh, as far as we could tell the town’s only pub, had a great atmosphere in the bar area. There were some tourists, especially French, who had come for the food, but it was mainly locals, rowdy and crowded around the bar. They loved Cash, and as most of the diners left they insisted that we allow him off leash to run around the pub. We had some local brews, a Suilven from An Teallach brewing, and soon got out the Scrabble board from a shelf by the bar. This caused quite a stir, as one of the denizens was known locally for being a great Scrabble player, and for memorising the Scrabble dictionary. The pub was warm and cosy, and some of the locals came by every now and then to help us out with a word or two. We chatted, played, and chatted some more as Cash roamed around the restaurant. After closing time we headed home and collapsed.
We got up and found our host in the kitchen, in chef’s uniform, cooking breakfast to order. After a hearty breakfast, we prepared for the big kahuna: a climb up Suilven. We were worried about how tired Cash was, and his paws seemed a bit tender. Turns out he was ready for a big hike.
We parked on the north side of the mountain in the Glencansip Lodge parking lot, and walked by the lodge’s honesty shop (‘open 24 hours’), skirting a large loch as we went. Soon we were headed up and down the rises and falls of the land as we wound our way alone a creek that went from lochan to lochan. The trail was more of a single track dirt road, passable for serious off-road vehicles, and the landscape was peaty, classic highlands.We barely climbed in elevation for the first four or five miles as we hiked to the base of the mountain, and along the way we passed the wall for the Suileag bothy (a bothy is a free house for hikers to stay in, an old croft house normally), and a work party brought in by the John Muir Trust that preserves much of the land. Soon we reached the base of the mountain and had the first of our three sandwiches from the packed lunches our host made for us for the hike (worth every bit of the £6 we paid for them).
Cash, seeming pretty tired from the walk, laid down in the grass as we ate. Soon we began the ascent up the steep, switchbacked trail, luckily well maintained. It was a reasonably short hike, but vertical pretty much the whole time. As we went up, the views got better and better, till, out of breath, we finally reached the summit ridge, the saddle of which is a large expanse seemingly sheltered from the wind. We began our final ascent to the summit, and the wind began to howl. As we got to the summit it was nearly strong enough to knock us over–pup was not happy about it. The summit itself was a large, nearly flat grassy expanse, quite the contrast from the knife’s edge ridge we took to get to the top. It was topped by a huge rock cairn, visible for pretty much the whole hike in. The views–of Stac Pollaidh, Ben Mor, the sea, the lakes, the land–were sweeping and stunning.
We took a break back in the sheltered saddle, consuming the rest of our lunch (more sandwiches, an apple, crisps, orange juice, and a McVities Penguin Bar) and pondering the otherworldly landscape. The descent from the mountain was slow, and came to a grinding halt when AM thought that Cash–our poor, tired dog–would be fine off leash, over RM’s protests. He was let off leash, and then he was gone, around the side of the mountain. The next thing we saw was a black blur bombing downhill, about a quarter mile away. After 20 minutes of flat out off trail sprinting and bird chasing, Cash was indeed tired, and came bounding back into RM’s arms. The remainder of the hike was uneventful, a long slog 4 miles back to the car, with a quick stop at the honesty shop for a refreshing drink (we still owe them 29p–we’ll send a check when we get back from Russia).
We drove home, tired but happy, cleaned up, and went to the famous Lochinver Larder, known for its pies (who knows how famous famous is in Assynt). We got venison and cranberry, walnut and something else, a jacket potato, and pork apple cider, and sat down by the water to eat. We looked out across the town at the big warehouse, the old stone buildings, and out into the harbour, at the mouth of Loch Inver. After we’d finished we headed to the Caberfiedh for a round of Suilven beer, and chatted with a couple locals at the bar. The first moved to Assynt to start a new life, and now raises sheep, pigs and cattle in nearby Clachtoll. We talked about the challenges of farming for quite a while, and talked with his buddy, a Scotsman who we could barely understand (partially because of his Scottish accent, but mostly because he was drunk). Soon after we met the chieftain of the local Highland Games (the Highland Games are a big deal in the Highlands, and seem to involve a lot of drinking and throwing of big rocks). He’d returned from an arctic expedition for the Games, and normally arrives to the pub by boat. He was perhaps the world’s most interesting man, and he told us quite a bit about the geology and history of the area. Both of them, on seeing our tour books, gave us routes to take the next day, all involving the coastal road from Lochinver to Kylesku.
Our time in Lochinver ran short, and after another great breakfast we hopped in the car and took the pretty coastal road. We soon got to the Rock Stop Cafe, a cafe with a rock museum attached. The whole area is a geopark, and is a very important area for geologists, containing some of the oldest rock in the world. There were samples of Lewinsian Gniess, the bedrock of the area, of limestone and sandstone and tens of other stones found in the area. AM loved it, rock lover that she is. From there we continued on to the Kylesku bridge, a pretty concrete structure that ended the need for a ferry across the loch in 1984. The plaque, which said ‘opened by her majesty the queen,’ had the queen bit scratched out. We turned around, and drove through Inchnadamph on Loch Assynt, with the ruins of the Ardvreck Castle sitting perched above the lake, and blasted down past Inverness.
We were on the way to Speyside–whiskey country. We wished we had more time in the Highlands, but thought that no trip to Scotland would be complete without a visit to at least a couple of the the dozens of distilleries that dot the country. We passed a loch that opened to the sea by Inverness where they decommission oil rigs, with perhaps five or ten of the steel structures in various states of construction, and as a mist settled in we pulled in to the Cardhu distillery, where we’d booked a tour.
It was the first of Johnnie Walker’s distilleries, and also the only one founded by a woman. Now it’s owned (like many others) by the Diageo Group, a huge international conglomerate. The tour took us through how Scotch is made, from the malted barley to the huge vats used to ferment it to the beautiful, huge copper pot stills used to distill the spirits into whiskey. At the end of the process is something called the spirit safe, where the good liquor is diverted into tanks before being barrelled. Perhaps the most interesting part was how automated everything was, with a control room and a computer that allows the whole process to be controlled. Below the walkway, we were on sat a whole host of metrics used to improve the plant’s output. It was all quite impressive but left us with the feeling that a once local business had lost a bit of its soul to the global economy. We, of course, had a tasting at the end, and we really enjoyed the smoothness of the Cardhu whiskeys.
Soon we were at our Airbnb, a big bedroom in a house in Archiestown. Our host recommended the Mash Tun pub in nearby Aberlour as a good place for dinner, and we took a walk by the River Spey with Cash, taking in a pretty suspension footbridge before settling in at the bar. It was a cosy place (and Cash was a big hit), and while we snacked on haggis nachos and a burger we contemplated the massive whiskey list, a compendium of the hundreds of whiskies they carry (at least it seemed like hundreds), complete with staff tasting notes for each one. While some of the shots can go into the hundreds of pounds, we opted for the £4 Tomintoul 10 and the Glendronach 12, each a delightful taste of Scotland. After taking Cash for a walk by the Aberlour distillery, including a whiskey barrel photo shoot and a sighting of an enormous monkey puzzle tree, we called it a night and headed back to our B and B.
It was time to commence our long trip down south. After a delicious breakfast, we chatted with the host for a long while before packing our bags. We’d called a second distillery, Glenfarclas, and there was space on their 10:30 tour. We figured that we wanted to see another one, so we pulled in to their large complex, situated in a glen, a warren of stone warehouses, a visitor centre, and more industrial buildings. In stark contrast to Cardhu, it’s a family run operation, owned by a succession of George and John Grants. Whiskey production in Scotland was done typically as an afterthought, and Glenfarclas was one of the few distilleries that decided to get a license in the beginning. Each warehouse is padlocked, and occasionally inspected by the taxman to ensure that no stock getting taken without tax.
The set up was a bit more old school than Cardhu’s, with a lot of the machinery decades old (the control panel was straight out of the 80s). Our guide was truly outstanding, and she showed us bits of the process–like how they clean the malted barley–that we couldn’t see in Cardhu. One cool fact that we learned is that peat fuelled the fires for malting barley only in regions that couldn’t get coal to burn, us imparting a smoky character–not because it was desirable to have the smokiness initially. She let us roam free and take pictures in the room with the pot stills, and we were able to get right next to the massive copper vessels.
The tasting was in a room with chandeliers and wood panelling taken from one of the Royal Navy’s decommissioned ships (lost by a torpedo), and we loved the Scotch. We ended up buying a couple bottles on the way out, and walked Cash around the grounds before leaving. Just as we were headed back to the car, we stumbled across the owner in a suit, who quickly told us the story of the warehouse door sitting next to us. Turns out it’s the smallest bonded warehouse in the UK (and I’d bet the world), holding only three barrels–they asked HMRC if they could get it bonded, and HMRC agreed. It was a great way to cap off our visit.
From there, we hopped on the single track roads and drove towards the highway. As we left we were struck by how much Speyside’s rolling hills, forests, and farm animals looked like Kentucky bourbon country, as though there’s a perfect mix of geographical conditions perfect for making whiskey.
Single track roads soon became double track roads, and eventually motorways, and after 7 hours and most of the S-town podcast we finally arrived in York, where we’d stay before continuing on to London. We rested at a sparse but functional place called the Watergate Inn, conveniently located in the heart of town. We wanted to explore this pretty, history-filled British city before we left the UK, and now was our chance. We took a walk down the Shambles, a famed narrow street with wood buildings overhanging the pedestrians below, before continuing on to the Minster (sp?), a stunning, huge church complete with flying buttresses and stained glass. Throughout, many buildings had old facades of wood beam and stucco (or something like it). We walked by the canal, took a gander and York’s tiny castle on a small hill, and had a quick dinner by the water before calling it a night.
The next morning, we got an early start for the drive back to London, and after dropping our dog off and changing our things out at our storage unit we drove to Gatwick, turned in our rental car, and hopped a plane to Saint Petersburg.