A brief tour of North Scotland

“There’s a swell out in the Minch,” said the captain of our ferry in his rich sing song Hebridean voice as we pulled out of Lochmaddy on North Uist. His whole speech was just a nautical version of the speech I’ve heard a thousand times on planes, but for me it was for me filled with poetry—mainly because of his voice and diction but also its content. We were on our way to Skye. “Speed bonny boat like a bird on the wing over the sea to Skye.” What could be more romantic? “Stop singing that,” said Lin—but later reminding me that she wants it played at her funeral.

After the bleak, brown, boggy, empty, treeless beauty of North Uist, Skye, which feels so remote in London, feels like Italy, filled with trees, green grass, and the extravagant yellow of gorse.

We stop at the Skye Gathering in Portree where Chicken buys a knitted woollen cravat and four silver spoons, while I walk by the harbour, still hoping for a whelk; I reach the conclusion that they don’t eat whelks in Scotland, although Chicken tells me her father used to eat whelks.

Our next stop is Eilean Donan Castle, perhaps the world’s most romantic castle and central to one of Scotland’s iconic views: the grey rock of the medieval castle in the sea where the three lochs of Duich, Long, and Aish meet surrounded by high mountains. Named after Donnan of Eigg, a Celtic saint martyred in 617, the castle was a stronghold of the Jacobites and blow up a government ship in 1719. It lay in ruins for 200 years until John Macrae-Gilstrap spent 20 years restoring it, culminating in a grand opening in 1932.

Eileen Donan

Chicken was hugely impressed that a man should have the courage, commitment, and ambition to sustain such a project: she’d like to do something similar. And he did a good job. The castle feels 13th century, and you can wander everywhere; and the inside, although it plays to the bogus Walter-Scott-inspired vision of the Highlands, was well done. Seeing a strand of hair of Bonnie Prince Charlie brought a tear to my eye.

And so onto Ullapool, where we encountered the Fèis, the Gaelic music gathering, that I’ve described in another blog. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/05/03/the-ullapool-feis-a-lesson-for-us-all/


North of Ullapool the land becomes very empty and the mountains huge and dramatic. You drive for miles and encounter nobody. In some stretches bog and heather, brown at this time of year, run away for miles to distant mountains with no buildings in site. Settlements are small and sparse and become ever further apart; and then the road becomes single track, meaning that you can pass a car coming from the other direction only in passing places where the road is widened. We drove perhaps 15 miles on single track road before reaching Durness, the most North Westerly village in Britain.  Before you reach Durness you drive beside a sea loch where the water is a unique deep green; and North of the village is a long white beach with sea that is Mediterranean blue. John Lennon came on holiday here year after year as a child and fell in love with it; he returned with Yoko Ono and tried to buy it.

If you want to go to Cape Wrath, the North Westerly point of the UK mainland, you must take a ferry across a sea loch and then drive for 40 minutes in a minivan. We didn’t bother.

Durness has a curious craft village, where artists and crafts people of various kinds occupy ugly prefabs built by the military as an early warning station in the Cold War but never used. The artists have created gardens and decorated the prefabs to make a unique village. In one of the prefabs we met a English woman who’d lived in the village for six years, loved it, and wanted “to die here behind this door.” Chicken wondered about her story that brought her to such a remote place.

We drove East along more single track road and stopped at an open air museum that commemorated a village cleared in the 19th century. I walked down the hillside through where crofts once were and then up to a windswept hillock overlooking the Pentland Firth. The villagers had been given two days to leave their homes. The Scotsman and the Inverness paper had been on the side of the landowners (and no doubt owned by the same people), but later, after many complicated twists and turns and a riot in Durness, came to sympathise with the cleared families. Nevertheless, they had to leave.


That night we stayed in the Tongue Hotel, a converted shooting lodge that had once belonged to the Earl of Sutherland. Tongue is a still, beautiful, isolated village with a sea loch to the North and the sinister looking mountains of Ben Loyal and Ben More to the south. I felt as far from London as I’d ever been and would like to go back. The Countess of Sutherland spends her summers there.


The next day we drove along the North cost, empty but for Dounreay nuclear power station, and arrived in Thurso, which shocked us with its traffic lights and numbers of people. As you drive East you move from Sutherland, Britain’s wildest and emptiest county with its high jagged mountains, to the rolling hills and pale green of Caithness.

From Thurso we drove south and stopped at another village cleared in the 19th century. A descendant of those who had been cleared moved to New Zealand and became rich. He returned at the beginning of the 20th century and built a high monument in the middle of what was the village. The monument lists the nine children of the last family (perhaps including the mother or father of the New Zealander) and names a man from the village who died at Waterloo.

And then we visited the home—the castle come palace—of the Dukes and Earls of Sutherland who benefited from the clearances. Dunrobin Castle was built piece by piece through six centuries and seems a cross between Scottish baronial and a French chateau. It towers high above a French garden modelled on Versailles that runs down to the sea. We walked through a series of opulent rooms, many of them filled with world class paintings. The current earl recently sold two Titians to the state for £85 million.

The contrast between the ruins of the cleared villages and the extravagance of the castle could not be more stark, and the pain and anger is still present. One way that the pain and anger manifest themselves is the debate over “the manny on the hill,” a statue of the Duke of Sutherland that can be seen from miles on a hill behind Golspie, the village at the gates of the castle: some want it torn down, others see it as part of history and a symbol of Golspie. Within the castle we met a “polis” man (I thought he said Polish) who expressed ambivalence over the Dukes of Sutherland: he’s clearly proud of the castle and fascinated by its history but recognises the crimes of the Dukes, although he thinks that they may have been overstated.

The polis man told us too of how he would have to drive the two hours to Unapool on the West Coast to set up a polling station for the local election later that week—for 46 voters. Because the polling station must be open from 7 am to 10pm he qualifies for two nights’ bed and breakfast. He thought it ridiculous, while I thought it magnificent.

We stayed that night in the Golspie Inn, a 200 year old building once called the Sutherland Arms but now run down. The manager’s son will get married in Dunrobin Castle, which she clearly felt ambivalent about. In the morning we had a long conversation with a mad looking woman with a shock of bleached blond hair and black eye make-up; her passion was politics, and she had to make clear to us how she despised “Wee Nicola” and the SNP and was against independence. Although she’s a Gaelic speaker from Skye she thought the clearances had helped many people by leading to them deserting a hard, poor life and moving to countries where they could build better lives.

As we drove back to Inverness to fly home, I kept thinking of the clearances; and as we came into land at Gatwick I was hit by the luxuriant green of the fields and of the trees, all of which were in full leaf. This is another country.




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