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