A Breath of Fresh Air

How I'm getting back out into the countryside whilst living with MS

Archive for the tag “Scotland”

Scottish Highlands and Islands: Part Three – the Outer Hebrides

Welcome back if you’re still with me on this Scottish tandem tour! Now it’s the seriously out-of-the-way stuff! We stayed for several days on Harris, at the bottom of the island of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, and went on two totally contrasting rides.

The first was along a side road off a minor road on the east side of Harris. It was a circular route along what was called the Golden Road. We met practically no one on the 12 miles or so, apart from the odd walker, one of whom tried to hitch a lift!

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happy bike in the sunshine

The road wound its way round rocky hillocks covered in heather and passed many baby lochs which makes that part of the island such a watery landscape. It meandered near to the sea and as we twisted and turned we had repeated glimpses of the rocky shore and the inlets that wriggled their way inland.

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houses amongst the rocks

The landscape was dotted with isolated houses and tiny settlements. Otherwise, it was rocks and lochs and heather in all directions.

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bike in the heather

We had mixed weather on that ride. You could see the clouds coming in and the rain dropping down as the clouds came towards you. Then the rain was on you, and then it was gone. And then there were rainbows! Never the same weather for long!

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rainbow!

The second ride was along the western side of the island which is utterly different, with wide white beaches and mountain views looking towards north Harris. This was busier, with camper vans stopping to take photographs of the amazing expanses of beach, and the road, though mainly single track, had been recently improved.

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towards Luskentyre beach and north Harris

The road was also along the route of the West Highland Cycle Way, which goes from Vattersay at the very bottom of the Outer Hebrides, up to the Butt of Lewis. It was good to see a few fellow cyclists on the road and exchange hellos.

We did a there-and-back route from Seilebost down to Northton. It was blue skies, blue seas and white beaches all the way. Again, there were houses dotted in the landscape but there were also some rather fancy highly designed houses with floor-to-ceiling windows making the most of the views. Many had roofs made from natural materials that blended into the surrounding rough grass. Some looked quite hobbity.

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Temple cafe, Northton

We turned off the ‘main’ road at Northton, lured by a rare sign for a cafe and another for a shop. It turned out to be a very good move! The cafe had stunning views up the estuary and towards Scarista beach, and a good selection of cakes! The shop was an open ‘hut’ with an honesty box to pay for an amazing selection of home baked wares, including vegetable curry pasties and frangipane cakes, both of which we can highly recommend!

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Croft 36 shop

We also saw by far our best selection of birdlife of the whole trip that day (which had prior to that been sadly disappointing). We saw oystercatchers, fulmars, a whole flock of lapwings, and my first ever snipe. There was also a bird we couldn’t make out that kept us entertained as we sat on the beach, whilst it turned upside down and back again, over and over, riding the air currents, clearly just for the fun of it.

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towards north Harris

It was a great day in a beautiful part of the world, and there are plenty more cycle routes we can create to bring us back!

Scottish Highlands and Islands: Part Two – Wester Ross

Onwards and northwards! From Skye, our next stop was to be at Applecross, a settlement by the edge of the sea, the far side of large hills, and with only minor roads to take us there. Despite being back on the mainland, it was harder to reach than Skye! And the journey there is part of the background to our next tandem ride.

As we began our day, the sun was shining warmly. But by the time we were approaching the climb to Applecross, thick cloud had appeared. This climb, over the pass known as the Bealach Na Ba, is not to be messed with. It is 9km long, is very twisty, and reaches 626m. It is also single track all the way (with passing places).

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visibility on the Bealach

Well, it was certainly exciting, and I gather there are good views! Our visibility, however, was just metres ahead, and despite the weather there were plenty of vehicles on the road. Hard work!

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the view from the summit

As we descended the far side, we reached the bottom of the clouds and could see a little way ahead towards the sea. Then solid cloud blocked any further views.

However, before our very eyes, the cloud gradually, gradually receded and islands began to appear, then mountains, and we found we could recognise the shapes. We were looking at the Isle of Raasay from the far side, and the Cuillin of Skye were on the horizon. We had swung right round to the other side from where we had begun our day.

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looking towards Skye and Raasay

And with the cloud lifting, the sun reappeared. It was dazzling. We had to get out into this scenery – as fast as we could!

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the beach

There was a little road heading out of the far side of Applecross and we began to cycle along it, thinking  we would be able to travel a mile or so – we really felt that we were at the end of the world and the path must surely be about to end. But no, it continued above the shoreline, past a few houses that provided the homely smell of peat, an isolated school, a playground with a magnificent view, and a couple of churches. And all lit by this magical evening sun.

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evening sun

It all felt rather glorious and unbelievable after our journey over the pass. Then to top it all, we stopped on a hillside overlooking a little bay, just enjoying the views, when we spotted the bobbing heads of seals below us. They were sliding into the water from a little rocky island that was reducing as the tide came in, and they dived and reappeared before us again and again. Perfection.

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perfect spot for a tandem

Scottish Highlands and Islands: Part One – Isle of Skye

I couldn’t resist writing something – we’ve been wanting to take the tandem to the Scottish highlands for some time and we’ve finally done it! It’s a part of the world that we are repeatedly drawn to. It’s where we first holidayed together and where we spent our honeymoon. It was definitely time to share it with the tandem. At last, we were able to make sufficient time to travel north into the mountains (it’s a long drive!) and enjoy immersing ourselves there.

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Cuillin ridge

We actually made several tandem rides on the trip – too many for one post! So, as my son might say, buckle up, here comes part one (of three – I hope you think it’s a worthwhile journey!).

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tandem by the Cuillin

As soon as we arrived on the Isle of Skye, we wasted no time driving straight from the ferry and making for an old road we had seen on our last visit (it’s only taken four years to carry out this plan!). The road had been abandoned once a faster route had been blasted out of the hillside on the way to Sligachan.

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Cuillin from Loch Ainort

That left the old road all for us. No one was interested in it, potholed and rough as it was. Perfect! The route skirted the shore, providing ever evolving views as we curved round towards Loch Sligachan. We could see the gentle slopes of the Isle of Scalpay, just out to sea, then the beginning of the Isle of Raasay with its small volcanic peak jutting out from a flat skyline. As we rode on we could see north towards the rocky cliffs around Kilt Rock, and on the way back the Red and Black Cuillin dominated.

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north Skye

The bike ride enabled us to feel much more immersed in the island in a way that driving through in a car couldn’t – much more akin to going for a walk. This time though we were doing something new; rather than climbing amongst the Cuillin, we were hugging the coastline, bending as it bent, and watching the tides, seeing the bright orange seaweed blanket the wet, black rocks.

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towards Loch Sligachan

It wasn’t all peace and quiet though … the midges were still out in force when we arrived, as we discovered when we sat down to try and eat our lunch. As soon as we were in one place, they pounced! Especially on Pete! We abandoned trying to eat and hurried back on to our saddles – we could outride them at least! Future stops were very brief and in places where there was a breeze, which successfully thwarted them. Ah well, we were definitely getting the full highland experience!

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midges!

(Fortunately(?) the weather cooled shortly afterwards and the midges departed, causing little bother for the rest of our trip.)

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tranquility

The next day, buoyed by the tranquillity of our first tandem ride (bar the midges), we headed further afield, to the northwestern edge of the island, sure that we would be alone again. We remembered a quiet road that we had discovered many years earlier, and that it had been a most peaceful spot.

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Macleod’s Tables

As we turned off the Dunvegan road shortly before the village we vaguely noticed that we were by no means the only car taking the turning. Hmm. Undeterred, we unloaded the tandem and rode out.

The scenery was definitely as beautiful as we remembered … unfortunately, it was no longer an unknown road at the edge of the island. It was still a single track route with passing places, as most of the island had been once of a day. That’s fine when there’s not much traffic but now it seemed that word had got out that this was a lovely place to explore and, whilst not exactly busy, it wasn’t exactly quiet either.

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Loch Dunvegan

This was when we discovered the particular challenge of a slightly busy single track road on a bike, especially on a hilly road, as that one was. Not only do you need to be aware of where the next passing place ahead is so that you can gauge whether you or the vehicle coming the other way needs to stop and use it, you also need to be aware of traffic coming along behind so that you can stop at a passing place to allow them to overtake. And all the time you lose momentum for climbing the inclines. Most frustrating! When all we wanted was a peaceful time enjoying the views (as did everyone else, obviously!).

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the loch, looking seawards

And so that tandem ride came to a somewhat abrupt end. It was hardly a disaster though – we had our lunch overlooking Dunvegan Loch and the only sound was of the odd car passing. It was all much less frustrating when we weren’t on the road and somehow it didn’t seem so busy after all once we stopped. Peace was restored.

Edinburgh on Wheels!

We had decided that a weekend away in Edinburgh would be good for us all to do (Pete, me and the offspring) so I booked the hotel and we started looking forward to it. It was many years since I’d been and what I remembered were the wide streets, the old buildings and the Royal Mile.

Then I started to think some more … wasn’t Edinburgh the hilliest city we could have arranged to stay in … were we completely mad?! I decided that if I was going to make the trip then going with three healthy and helpful members of the family was the way to do it.

towards Calton Hill, Edinburgh

towards Calton Hill, Edinburgh

I really made the most of my support team: Calton Hill – no problem! The Royal Mile – no problem! Miles of Edinburgh streets – no problem! (Okay, total exhaustion by the end but totally worth it!)

There are a few steps at the start of Calton Hill which I successfully negotiated and the upward slope thereafter was well within the capabilities of my pusher – and it was only just off the main thoroughfare. There were great views at the top, as well as a cluster of great monuments, and the slight rain showers didn’t dampen our spirits.

National Monument, Calton Hill

National Monument, Calton Hill

The younger members of the party clambered around the National Monument which is pretty impressive up close. And all of us, as enthusiastic Proclaimers fans, just had to recreate their iconic album cover for ‘Sunshine on Leith’, looking moodily over to the coast towards Leith. Totally embarrassing but quite hilarious at the time!

with apologies to the Proclaimers!

with apologies to the Proclaimers!

We spent a sunny Saturday morning conquering the Royal Mile on our mission to get to the castle – a distinct effort was required by the team to get me there. Once we arrived at the castle entrance, wondering how we’d manage the next steep cobbled path inside, I was approached by a steward who said that I could be taken by car into the castle right to the top. Excellent!

I waited with a 92-year old woman who had walked to there under her own steam(!). We were taken by car round the side of the castle, through a tunnel which was bored through the ancient rock in the 1980s, and emerged at the sunny summit, with no effort required!

We generally mooched around enjoying the amazing views over the city, admired the huge gun, Mons Meg, and watched the ever growing crowds making their way into the castle.

views across Edinburgh from the castle

views across Edinburgh from the castle

My driver(!)  had said that there was disabled access to see the Crown Jewels. I thought that this possibility ought to be investigated. We approached the entrance to the exhibition but all I could see were a narrow turret, steep stairway and long queue … not promising.

However, our daughter was not to be deterred. She went in search of a steward and came back (Miss Fixer that she is) with information and assistance. There was a secret entrance – we were taken via a lift right into the depths of the castle and emerged near the front of the queue. A very friendly but firm steward in the Jewel Room ensured that I had a great view of the displays. After we had finished, the whole queue was halted to enable me to exit via the lift. This must be how celebrities feel!

Although the collection is modest, the jewels are beautiful and an important part of Scottish history. The way through is narrow and the queue was long, and I would definitely recommend going on a quieter day than we did, especially if you can’t call on the VIP treatment.

Edinburgh streets

Edinburgh streets

In the afternoon the younger group headed energetically up Arthur’s Seat whilst we meandered at a slower pace down to Princes Street. There, I was able to lie on the grass and rest whilst listening to cheery jazz musicians. It was so good to lie down!

I was having a great time but was finding just watching the sheer number of people exhausting. I’m not used to being around crowds!

A friend had given me a recommendation to visit the Royal Botanic Garden and it was sounding ever more attractive as an antidote to the business of the morning. Fortunately, we could break up our journey by stopping off at our hotel en route as it was probably a 30-40 minute walk from the centre.

riverside cottages, Stocksbridge

riverside cottages, Stocksbridge

At every step we travelled north, the roads and footpaths grew emptier. We had wide Georgian streets flanked with parks to ourselves and before long we found ourselves in what felt like a village within a city, in Stocksbridge. There was bustle here, but of a much more relaxed Saturday kind.

We passed streets of cottages and followed a river. On we went, over cobbles (ouch!) and negotiating some unhelpfully high kerbstones, until we eventually arrived at the Botanic Garden.

ancient hedge, Royal Botanical Garden

ancient hedge, Royal Botanical Garden

It was wonderful, a real haven of calm so close to the city centre – definitely worth the journey. It was late afternoon when we arrived so it wasn’t too busy but there was so much space that I’m sure it would be difficult for it to actually look busy.

There were wide paths, lawns spotted with trees, hidden spaces behind hedges and well-tended bushes in full flower.

We’d been advised to visit the Queen Mother Memorial Garden. It was a circular garden, tucked away behind a 100-year-old hedge, and commemorated the Queen Mother’s long life, marking off the decades on flagstones with notable dates. All around the edge were little alcoves to sit in, hidden from everyone.

Queen Mother Memorial Garden

Queen Mother Memorial Garden

Elsewhere, there was an amazing conservatory, and next to it lay Britain’s largest plant fossil, of a tree that grew 320-340 million years ago.

330-million-year-old tree fossil

330-million-year-old tree fossil

Although the cafe was just shutting as we arrived, we were able to sit outside looking out towards the Edinburgh skyline. No hurry, no rush. Perfect!

impressive glasshouse

impressive glasshouse

Just a note about accessibility – I would not have been able to get about as I did if it wasn’t for my energetic pushers. I wouldn’t recommend the city for self-propelled wheelchairs – the kerbs were a real challenge. I don’t recall seeing any other wheelchair users and definitely saw no mobility scooter. However, taxis would certainly be way of getting about and the castle did well considering its great age.

 

A Skye Adventure

I have been walking amongst the Black Cuillins of the Isle of Skye! I never expected to be doing something so adventurous amidst those awesome mountains again.

Black Cuillins from Sligachan, Skye

Black Cuillins from Sligachan, Skye

Pete and I haven’t been on Skye for way too long but, fortunately, our Silver Wedding anniversary gave us the necessary nudge to get us back, retracing part of our honeymoon. We made numerous visits pre-children when we climbed several Red Cuillins, as well as one mean Black one (after a previous aborted attempt due to Scottish weather on our honeymoon).

We have also explored the island by car, heading down most of its roads in our quest to see as much as possible. However, on this visit we discovered that there was a particular road, with a very tempting boat trip at its end, that we hadn’t previously been down.

Cuillins from Elgol

Cuillins from Elgol

This was the road to Elgol, and the boat was the Bella Jane. The road took you round the south west part of the island to give a view of the Cuillins that was hidden from the main route up the island. Even better, the Bella Jane took you close to the hidden Loch Coruisk, only accessible through the mountains by foot or by boat.

We drove for three quarters of an hour along a single track road, past hamlets and single houses dotted amongst the long rough grass, and on round the wide empty shore of Loch Slapin, with a glimpse of the small isles beyond. Finally, a severe drop down to the sea brought us to the hamlet of Elgol, with its handful of houses, three huts for boat trips, and, most amazingly, a village school! Right on the water’s edge – it must be the best placed school in the country!

darkening atmosphere

darkening atmosphere

The tiny harbour faced the Cuillins across Loch Scavaig. Although they were still a little distant, they managed to look rather less than welcoming. You knew that to climb them would be a challenge, only to be undertaken by an experienced walker (indeed, an experienced climber for several).

Our boat brought us ever closer to the rocks that formed the lower slopes of the mountains. As we drew nearer, the rocks loomed larger, darker and more forbidding. It felt colder, more serious.

basking grey seals

basking grey seals

The mood was lightened by the sight of seals basking on several little rocky islands. Then we turned into a beautiful dark green lagoon, with Cuillin rocks rising out of it. The boat moored below a flat rock and we climbed a steep metal ladder (with a handle at only one side – I clung on with both hands!).

Now my adventure really began! The walk from the mooring to Loch Coruisk usually took about 10 minutes. It took me about three times as long, with several stops.

steps up from the lagoon

steps up from the lagoon

The effort was completely worth it. I was walking amongst the Black Cuillins! The path was muddy, grassy and stony. It was uneven and there were puddles. I was properly on the lower Cuillin slopes! Some of the route was even over the distinctive, grippy gabbro rock that made up those mountains.

views whilst walking

views whilst walking

 

the footpath

the footpath

It was an exhilarating walk and at journey’s end I was able to sit above Loch Coruisk, enjoying the brooding, empty beauty of the scenery. Others may climb the jagged peaks; I have conquered the walk to the hidden loch.

wilderness of Loch Coruisk

wilderness of Loch Coruisk

I have to confess that the midges did find us but even they didn’t manage to spoil the moment!

Red Cuillin on road to Sligachan

Red Cuillin on road to Sligachan

It was a memorable trip, and one of the highlights of our long overdue return to the west coast of Scotland. Oh, those magnificent mountains! They nearly had me weeping!

 

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