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A breath of Highland air

June 11, 2013

‘In Kintail nothing lacks; all things culminate. It is the epitome of the West Highland scene.’ (W.H. Murray)

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It was the cuckoos I noticed first. Standing outside the door, watching the light shift over the mountains across the loch, I could hear nothing but birdsong. Cuckoos were calling a duet across the hillside. Behind me a song-thrush perched on top of the telegraph pole, pouring out rivulets of melodic whistles and trills.

Primroses buttered every bank. The air was soft, smelling of sap and grass, a hint of honeyed azalea nearby mixed with the more distant scent of fresh water and the cool herbal breath of the mountains. Despite the scattering of little houses along the loch-side, I could not see another soul: the whole glen beyond the cottage door seemed laid out just for me and the birds.

 

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This sense of peace is what draws visitors to the West Highlands. That, and the scenery. We spent the weekend of elder son’s half term in Kintail and Lochalsh, which – for visitors heading westward – is the last bit of the mainland you drive through on the way to the bridge to the Isle of Skye, and the best bit of the drive. It has some of the most dramatic glens and, on Eilean Donan, one of the most iconic castles in Scotland.

Its mountains are legendary, with some of the best known hill walks in the country, such as the ridge walk across the Munros of the Five Sisters of Kintail. (The story goes that the five peaks were once princesses, who were turned to stone by a magician after waiting in vain for their Irish suitors to come for them across the sea. This is a part of the world where myths and fairytales grow thick as the heather underfoot.) Instead of driving through, we decided for once to forego the pleasures of Skye and to get to know this beautiful corner of Wester Ross a little better.

 

Eilean Donan Castle, Loch Duich, with Glenelg and the hills of Skye hidden in the mist beyond.

Eilean Donan Castle, Loch Duich, with Glenelg and the hills of Skye hidden in the mist beyond.

 

I am so glad we did. Despite the gradual increase in visitors, this area still has echoes of the Highlands I remember from childhood. Many old cottages have been turned into holiday homes now (the crofter who grew up in ours now lives in a static caravan along the glen); others lie derelict, given over to rowan, elder and cuckoos. New bungalows are springing up along the loch-sides.

There are plenty of crofters still making a living here, however. Sheep still wander across the village roads; ancient but serviceable little tractors still help with the donkey work. Fishermen still provide the local pubs with the freshest crab and langoustine for your lunch. The Gaelic language is part of the living culture here, as is traditional music.

 

'Needing some modernisation'

‘In need of some modernisation’

 

The crofting village of Duirinish, Lochalsh

The crofting village of Duirinish, Lochalsh

 

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And then there are those palm trees. This being Tuesday, I must mention the trees! Plockton, acclaimed as the prettiest village in the area, is famous for the palm trees which grow along its sheltered seafront. The Gulf Stream warms the climate here, allowing gardens to grow in glorious profusion at sea-level while up on the hills there is still nothing but last year’s brown heather.

Pretty little cottages  curl around the bay, their colourful gardens on one side and, across the water on the other, craggy peaks frowning above the turrets of a Victorian castle. It is so picturesque that every painting of Plockton (and artists are drawn here like bees to buddleia) looks twee to my eyes.

 

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My advice? Forget kitschy paintings and amateur holiday snaps like mine. They can only hint at how special this part of Scotland is. Put Wester Ross on your bucket list. Go soon.

 

You can see more about Kintail and the West Highlands in The Road to the Isles.

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34 Comments leave one →
  1. hmunro permalink
    June 11, 2013 6:59 pm

    Your words — and your lovely photos — deserve to be published, DB. This is some of the most beautiful travel writing I’ve read in a while.

  2. Julia permalink
    June 11, 2013 8:14 pm

    I forwarded this post to everyone I know who love all things Scottish. Beautifully written and illustrated. I felt as though I was there with you. I actually felt the cold and had to cover up with a blanket!
    Thank you for sharing your part of the world!
    I recently began reading a blogger from Eastern USA who reminds me of you. I noticed her because of her blog name -“Dancing Branflake”. I sent her a link to your blog.
    Have a great summer!

    • June 13, 2013 6:48 pm

      Thank you so much, Julia. I have just been to ‘visit’ Dancing Branflakes. How funny that our names are so similar – I never thought that would happen!

  3. maryz permalink
    June 11, 2013 8:32 pm

    We loved that area, too, especially Plockton. We’ve watched the BBC series based on MCBeaton’s books about Hamish MacBeth. The filming was done in Plockton.

    • June 13, 2013 7:02 pm

      ‘Hamish MacBeth’ came out on TV when I was working in England, and I loved its gentle Highland escapism. A few years later, who should pull over for me on a single-track road in Skye by Robert Carlisle, its lead actor! Must confess I have just bought the DVD and we are enjoying seeing Plockton again on telly.

  4. June 11, 2013 8:50 pm

    Oh, I did enjoy this lovely post, DB. Eleven years ago our first long trip in the very small campervan was to Wester Ross and you capture its magic so beautifully. We were in the Laide, Gairloch, Poolewe area that time, but later visited Kintail and Lochalsh.

    You are a born writer of place and that book is definitely on the horizon. 🙂

    • June 13, 2013 7:03 pm

      I haven’t been much further north (-west) than Loch Carron so far, but it’s calling to me…

      Glad you enjoyed the post, and thank you for your encouragement.

  5. June 12, 2013 12:50 am

    Palm trees? Who wold have guessed. It is a beautiful calming spot. I’e been wandering through some fairy tales this week – and certainly agree this land looks like the perfect area for creating them.
    Thanks for taking us along

  6. Erika W. permalink
    June 12, 2013 1:20 am

    So much pleasure derived from this but it almost tipped over into pain; what I would give to see banks of primroses once more and hear cuckoos calling?

    • June 13, 2013 7:05 pm

      Oh Erika, I should hate to give you pain. I can only imagine how I would feel if I could no longer experience the magic of spring in northern Europe. Please enjoy it as much as you can via Dancing Beastie!

  7. Glenda Hill permalink
    June 12, 2013 3:14 am

    So beautiful. My daughter and I visited your glorious country 3 years ago, thanks for the reminder of it.

  8. June 12, 2013 8:47 am

    Beautiful descriptions that do full justice to the pleasure of being there! I love the cottage ‘in need of modernisation’! It sounds like you had a lovely time. Our girls used to love pottering around shorelines like those, when they were the same age. They still do, in fact! The pic of the loch with its little island and Scots pine trees, with the mountains behind, is so beautiful – you see so many of those little loch-islands in that area. Out of interest, in April we stayed on the Duirinish peninsula on Skye – I believe ‘Duirinish’ means ‘headland of deer’.

    • June 13, 2013 7:26 pm

      Thank you Jo, we did indeed have a wonderful time in our brief visit. I don’t think one ever grows out of beach-combing, do you? Pottering on a windswept Scottish beach is my idea of a pretty heavenly day out (Orkney is very good for this 🙂 )

      Until we drove on from Plockton, I didn’t know of any Duirinish other than the beautiful bit of Skye with that name. Now that you tell me the meaning, I can see that that is what it must mean. ‘Duir’ must have the same root as ‘Jura’, island of deer; while ‘-nish’ – such a common suffix in this part of the world – must be the Gaelic version of the Norse ‘-ness’ or headland. Fascinating. Ahh, I do love a bit of amateur philology! 😉

      • June 13, 2013 7:53 pm

        Beachcombing is one of my dearest passions! A few pebbles and I’m happy. I can only imagine what Orkney’s beaches are like – I hope to go some day. You are right about Jura and ‘nish’, as far as I know. I love pondering the origin of names too! It makes you wonder about the people who first spoke them.

  9. June 12, 2013 4:35 pm

    Scotland is the land of my heart, and this region in particular. Eilean Donan holds sweet memories for me. Thanks for taking me back there!

    • June 13, 2013 7:42 pm

      I’m happy to have given you another glimpse of this beautiful area. Perhaps I will write a bit more about E. Donan castle – there is so much more to say!

  10. boyd hussey, (Douglas Ontario Canada) permalink
    June 12, 2013 8:26 pm

    tish tish! holiday snaps indeed! they and your words are for me, who has never been there, truly evocative . all those early 20th late 19th century renderings were more accurate than we knew. a few miles from here near a town called Almonte there is an old mill that was restored by a man named Taite Mackenzie. he was the creator of basketball and a noted athletics person. a family friend worked with him on the restoration and it is call the Mill of Kintail. i don;t know enough of his history to know the connection but now i feel even more connected to it

    • June 13, 2013 7:45 pm

      How interesting! I know that so many Scots went to Canada and took their place-names with them. The map of Canada is therefore intriguing to a Scot, if rather disorientating!

      • boyd hussey, (Douglas Ontario Canada) permalink
        June 17, 2013 1:54 am

        and interesting to me and others. the area i live is known as The Scotch Bush from early settlement days.

  11. June 13, 2013 1:03 am

    Fascinating that there are palm trees — I totally wouldn’t have expected those. Love seeing your photos — I was in Scotland years ago, and only for a few days. My grandmother was born up near Inverness, so I would dearly love a trip to see there, and more.
    Seeing your photos makes me want to make this trip happen in 2014. 🙂

  12. June 13, 2013 5:48 am

    I am new here, but you hooked me with “primroses buttered every bank”. There is poetry in the warp and weft of your weaving, the kind that begs to be read aloud. So I did. And I am eager to read more…

    • June 13, 2013 7:53 pm

      What an honour, to have my words read aloud! Thank you for your kind comments. I hope you will enjoy future visits to Dancing Beastie. 🙂

  13. June 16, 2013 3:56 am

    ah Plockton. i really wanted to get there on my only trip (so far) to the Highlands, but alas, didn’t make it. oh but for the next one! thanks for the lovely photos. I am revisiting HAMISH right now starting all over with the first eps… wonderful wonderful imaginings! (and VERY different from the books )

    • June 18, 2013 5:11 pm

      I too have wanted to visit Plockton for years. It was worth the waiting. We have just started at the beginning of Hamish MacBeth too! I saw it on TV years ago, but have never read the books.

  14. June 17, 2013 6:46 pm

    OOoh lovely post. Love your use of language. Haven’t responded to your earlier post but yes you MUST write a book! Go for it!! I too have been “galivanting” – almost where you were but a bit further north – Ullapool, Acheltibuie and environs. Love that area. Thanks for sharing your holiday. And get writing…. 😉

    • June 18, 2013 5:14 pm

      Gosh, thank you so much, Sian. Your encouragement is very much appreciated!

      It seems that quite a few of us have been quietly escaping to the West Highlands recently: what a lot of sensible people there are out there. 😉

  15. June 17, 2013 9:51 pm

    You’ve captured the essence of the West Coast.

  16. June 17, 2013 9:54 pm

    Are we the same person? I love Scotland, I’m a dancer, I’m currently editing my novel, and I ADORE taking photos of my travels. Did I mention how much I love Scotland? I am so glad we got introduced… much like a blind date, no? I’m looking forward to following your beautiful tales.

    • June 18, 2013 5:18 pm

      Isn’t that funny?! My dancing is strictly of the amateur variety and my writing likewise, but I was fascinated to discover your blog. Welcome to my version of Scotland!

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