Seaside Special - NC500 part 3: south-west Highland, Argyll and Bute

Ullapool was a real destination hub. The absence of any other settlement for miles around that could boast a ferry terminal, half a dozen pubs/restaurants and a supermarket meant that tourists, visitors and explorers (that’s me and Mrs A, obviously) made their way here in droves. For a village of only 1,500 souls, Ullapool punched above its weight.

We sat with a beer in the bar of the Seaforth pub/restaurant, waiting for table to become free for dinner. This was a substantial establishment on the harbour road, and was packed. Even the outside tables under a giant awning were full. The bar was a good place to people watch. All shapes, sizes and tribes of people – adventurous families, hairy bikers, cozy motorhomers, island-hopping residents, discerning travellers (us again, obvs) and even a few small groups of lairy young adults. A cosmopolitan mix that showed how convincingly Ullapool had hit NC500 paydirt.

Food quality standards remained impressively high. As a purpose-built 18th century herring port, sampling some jewels from the glittering sea in Ullapool felt appropriate. A giant bowl of mussels and a colourful platter of langoustines duly decorated our table, albeit briefly, before satisfying our appetite.

Our two-night berth was a self-contained apartment annexed to our host’s home and adjacent to Tesco. This catalysed a couple of important events: take-out beer and wine on the balcony and a lie in next morning.

Mrs A had found a good-looking walk up Ullapool Hill which would mean zero car miles for the first time on this trip. We stashed a decent picnic and set off through the village, passing the youth hostel and through the grounds of the Royal Hotel before a murderous ascent to Cnoc na Croich. There were plenty of lung-filling stops on the route to admire the breathless – quite literally – beauty of Loch Broom laid out before us both left and right. Low-lying cloud had been burnt off, replaced with Mediterranean skies and pollution-free horizons punctuated by ancient peaks. A good deal of congratulatory camaraderie and view admiration was earned at the zenith, shared with the few other hikers who were also recuperating up there.  

And then we struck out eastwards along well-defined paths towards Loch Achall. We sat on the shingle beach under a blazing sun, scoffing scotch eggs and deep-filled sarnies, wondering how we had been so lucky as to have the shimmering waters to ourselves. So very little human  intrusion in this idyllic corner. I spotted one bothy up on the hill, converted into a modern residence – probably a holiday let – but even here there was no sign of occupation. Plenty of wildlife though: Mrs A pointed out bullfinches and buzzards; we heard cuckoos and kites; and in the burns, glimpsed shoals of darting silver fish that I could never name in a month of Sundays.

By the time the river led us back in to Ullapool, we had rambled a solid eight miles or so. Definitely enough to warrant a pint. The Ceilidh Place obliged, and one beer became two (though Mrs A had shifted to vin rouge at this point) as we rested aching thighs at picnic tables on the terrace, pinching ourselves that this late afternoon sun was really Highland weather.

We briefly thought about dinner there for later, but it was already booked up – no surprise - so we contented ourselves with mooching around the gift and book shops, followed by pizza and a few bevvies back at the apartment.

Not without incident, however. I mean, why hide the cutlery like that? I had searched every drawer and cupboard in the kitchen for the eating-irons. Nothing where you would expect them to be (drawer next to the sink) nor where you wouldn’t either (cupboard in the TV unit). I had to WhatsApp the owners. How embarrassing. ‘Hello Angela. Lovely apartment, enjoying our stay (blah, blah). This might sound like an odd question, but we can’t find any cutlery anywhere (note judicious use of the word ‘we’). Are we missing something obvious?’  The response was almost instant. ‘Hi Dave. It’s a drawer within a drawer. Inside the drawer beside the cooker, pull out the secret little panel at the top. I know… it fooled us too!’ Kitchen designers, eh? FFS.

Later, we strolled out to catch the late, late sunset over the loch and then wandered over to the Argyll Inn at the far end of Argyle Street (work out the spellings if you can, it’s beyond me) for a drink. This place was busy, like every other gaff in town, but definitely a few more regulars amongst the visitors in a bar that ticked the sticky-carpet, tartan-wallpaper, telly-in-every-corner vibe of a proper, decent local.  

We had a laugh with Angela about the cutlery drawer as we were packing up the car next morning. She was American but had been in Ullapool about 30 years and loved it. She and her husband were both retired and living the dream: Her big dog looking down at us from their picture window overlooking the loch; and his big dog No 1 wood dwarfing irons and wedges in a golf bag poking out of his swish Audi.

A cloudy day, for a change, and a drive in damp conditions to Poolewe for the first stop. NC500 playlist on full blast. ‘Run To The Hill’s sandwiched between ‘Highway Star’ and ‘Highway Chile’ to cut through the murk. We followed Loch Broom and then the River Broom south as far as Braemore Junction where we swung a 180 over the river and began to climb the opposite side of the valley. ‘Into The Valley’ would of course have been the right playlist call at that moment, but somehow the iconic Skids track had been overlooked. The road veered up and away from Loch Broom skirting Bramore and An Teallach, with just enough height in the cloudbase to pick out the ridges and striations in the mountains’ upper reaches. Beyond Dundonnell, the road clung to a narrow slice of land hard up by the shore of Little Loch Broom on the right, buffeted and bullied by the wild foothills of An Teallach on the left. We climbed again and then hit the north-west coast where the loch emptied in to Gruinard Bay, amongst wide expanses of empty beach fringing the sea.

After crossing the Rubha Moe headland, we picked up the eastern edge of Loch Ewe and began another ascent. Half way up the climb we pulled in to a layby for a view back down the loch. This area played a significant role in maintaining the Arctic Convoys of World War Two. Crumbling concrete buildings, rusting metal posts and old gun emplacements we had passed earlier were part of the story.

Information panels told us that between 1941 and 1945, Loch Ewe was the main strategic military base for the convoys. As a deep sea loch with direct access to the north Atlantic Ocean, it was a perfect defensive location. At times up to ninety-five Merchant Navy and Royal Navy ships were anchored below us. 

The surrounding area had been a traditional Gaelic-speaking fishing and crofting community until the outbreak of war, by which time service personnel outnumbered locals by 3-to-1. Both Loch Ewe and Gairloch, which we would visit later in the day were given ‘restricted area’ status. The Gairloch Hotel was taken over as a military hospital. Many local people took on important roles, like laying and servicing metal anti-submarine nets, working in the NAAFIs along the coast, or crewing naval support vessels. The North Atlantic Convoys provided a lifeline to Britain, enabling it to survive and fight the war.

We carried on to Poolewe, passing the remains of the building used for inflating wartime barrage balloons which protected the loch, and parked up next to the river. Our walk took us away from the coast over alternating rocky and marshy ground, though the recent dry weather had saved us from the worst of what would have been soggy underfoot conditions. The route took us in a hilly circuit around Loch Kernsary. At the loch’s head, crossing the River Kernsary, we saw our first red deer of the trip. A few of the magnificent beasts were watching us from the crest of a small rise directly in front of us. Soon we joined the larger River Ewe and returned to the village along its banks.

Back in the car, I was curious to take a small diversion through the village of Gairloch out to the youth hostel in which I had stayed with a few mates back in the late 80’s. I remembered well some parts of the pretty village – certainly the hotel where we had a few drinks – but the distance between this and the youth hostel at Carn Dearg surprised me. I kept saying to Mrs A that it was just around the next bend… only for the building stubbornly not to appear. When it did, I recognised the isolated setting, the jutting roofline and the welcoming front lobby immediately, prompting a jolt of raw nostalgia straight down the spine (makes a change from neuralgia). It’s called Gairloch Sands these days. But otherwise thankfully unchanged. I tried to recreate a photo taken of me looking mean and moody in the teeth of a gale all those years ago, but gave up as Mrs A signalled that the car was actually parked in a pretty dangerous spot, and anyway the clouds were rolling back to reveal ribbons of open blue skies. These were most definitely not the prevailing climactic conditions that day in 1989.

Retracing our tyre tracks back to Gairloch, the sun fully breached the clouds to light up the hills and electrify the loch waters. Beautiful. Wester Ross marked the northern-most point of that decades-old youth hostel trip and for the first time, there was an element of overlap with this NC500 sojourn.

I could recall the sense of joy about being amongst that landscape from way back when, but I hadn’t retained much detail. So the drive from Gairloch south-east along the River Kerry’s fertile banks and then over the slopes of Slatterdale Forest was essentially a new experience. Nothing in my ragged memory prepared me for the magnificence of Loch Maree and the imposing mountains rising over the far bank. The remarkable Slioch dominated the horizon with twin 3,000+ foot pinnacles. Less significant neighbours shrunk from its proprietorial, fortress-like vibes. This is one of the most photographed vistas in the Highlands and we did nothing but enhance those stats with a good few pic-stops along the A832.

We turned south-west at Kinlochewe under the brutal slopes of Beinn Eighe and entered the treeless, canyon-like single-track route through the Torridon Range. Ancient, eroded brown-grey sandstone rock walls lined the glen, punctuated by damp ravines feeding a twisting river sometimes next to the road, sometimes not. Wind-stunted grasses in shades of brown and green patchily covered the outcrops, clung to screes and fringed the bogs. These are some of the oldest hills in Britain and sit, intriguingly, on bedrock even older. Mrs A described this as the most magnificent drive of the whole trip. I don’t know if I’m able to pick a best bit, but I know that both of us were bug-eyed and swivel-necked as we crossed that grand landscape.

The road took us beyond the settlement of Torridon and onwards above the southern shore of the loch of the same name. The gradient was generally downhill, in hilly fits and starts, towards Shieldaig. Within minutes we had pulled up outside the Shieldaig Hotel, checked in and were sat on a picnic table overlooking the loch with a couple of drinks. A cool 98 spectacular miles had elapsed since Ullapool this morning.

This was Sunday afternoon – though in true holiday spirit we struggled to distinguish between the days of the week – and a healthy crowd of families, couples, visitors and locals were gathered around the tables and on the grass, soaking up the late afternoon sun in a cloudless sky. 

Shieldaig Island, just offshore, was alive with wildlife and was famously home to sea eagles, though we never saw any. Lochinver, earlier in the trip, was famous for otters, but we didn’t spot any of those either. Of the western Highlands’ ‘Big Five’ beasts - red deer, otters, golden eagles, red squirrels and seals - we only ticked off the first-named. I once went to Iceland and didn’t see the Northern Lights. Nature, eh? Where do I get my money back?

We debated this sorry situation and bemoaned our general lot over an exquisite dinner. Mrs A tucked in to mushroom pate followed by scallops and a Caesar salad. I strapped on the waders and stepped into a lake of seafood chowder before wringing myself out and tackling an Aberdeen Angus burger which was ably supported on the oversize plate by a mound of haggis and fat-cut chips.

The dining room looked out over the bay and was busy. A three-generation extended family gathering sat in the window, displaying all their niggles, tensions and complicated inter-relationships – which we couldn’t quite get a fix on - for all to witness. We talked to another couple who were on an ambitious tour, and were striking out for Stornoway the next morning, aiming to catch an early ferry from Ullapool.  

The evening was rounded out by a stroll along the front and up around the camper van collective, where we sniffily dismissed a couple of camping pods on the edge of the park as being so much inferior to our Scourie glamping experience earlier in the trip. And then a nightcap of whisky for Mrs A and a G&T for me (not sure what I was thinking there) whilst the orange sun dipped in to the loch.

Monday was a chilled. Our last full 24-hours on the NC500. It began slowly with mega breakfasts. I hate to confess that I couldn’t finish my full Scottish (sausage, bacon, black pudding, haggis, fried egg, potato cake, beans, mushrooms), though Mrs A confidently worked her way through the smoked haddock and poached eggs. Toast with whisky marmalade on the side, too.

Time for a stroll. We made for the Aird Peninsula above Shieldaig, first following a cart track, getting lost around the houses perched on the north-side of the bay and then picking up the path again through woods and over fractured rock outcrops. The Torridon range in high-contrast morning shadow glory emerged to our right as we broke cover onto the Camas plain. 

This was the site of a small township in pre-clearance times around the 18th century. There were at least six buildings on the terrace above the shoreline, but it was heavily overgrown with bracken and difficult to pick out much beyond a few enclosure or dwelling walls.  

At the northern-most edge of the peninsula, a sprawling farmstead and patched up outhouses were built into the slope. The land and other diy structures rambled away down to the shore where the steep-sided islet of Eilean a Chaoil would have been accessible at low tide. We rested on a handy bench in this superb spot: feeling insignificant on a remote headland extruded into Torridon Bay, surrounded by frisky waters and looming mountains. Then across a ravine with the assistance of a chain-link handrail before plunging down through coniferous woodland. We turned south at another farmstead – locked and closed up, but not abandoned – and rejoined the track back to Shieldaig.

Fuelled by coffee and cake, we were eventually motivated enough to venture forth one more time.  In our route planning for the return journey south and eventually home, we had to make a sacrifice. The whole trip had been a series of choices about which spectacular mountain, pass, valley, vista, town, beach, castle, route to visit or swerve. I’m not sure we got all of them right, but everything we saw was amazing. Those we missed provide enough impetus for a return visit. Indeed from the distance of 10 months, Mrs A is already pining to do it again the other way, picking off the sites we bypassed. The sacrifice made at Shieldaig was the biggest of the lot: to overlook Applecross so that we could get down to Crianlarich the next day in something like reasonable time. For many, the circuit around the Applecross peninsula and the Bealach na Ba pass would be one of the highlights of the entire trip. We have saved it for next time.

The nearest we got was a walk up the Applecross road for a few miles. Rising high above Shieldaig loch, we ferreted out the best views back over the village and towards the Torridon range. It was just magnificent and I can only apologise for not having enough vocabulary to avoid repetition after landscape repetition. 

A contender for best house of the trip emerged at this end of the route too. A modern cantilevered structure barely visible from the road had been built into the crook of a bend close to the head of the loch with gorgeous outside space, and gardens shelving to the shore. Very discrete location. We had to push through plenty of scratchy undergrowth and low hanging branches to get a good enough view of it...

Afternoon was ticking on by the time we landed back at the hotel. We occupied our regular picnic table by the loch under the sun declining west out of yet another cobalt blue sky. The long journey home would begin the next day, so naturally we decided this was the perfect time to finally learn some Gaelic pronunciations. Wikipedia provided a little assistance, the beer more so, and both were more use than the woman at the next table who simply cackled, saying she had lived in this part of the world for 20 years and had ‘nae clue’. Like many others, we decided to ignore 50% of the consonants in a grouping within any word and every occurrence of the letter ‘i’. I think it helped.

The last supper: a monster seafood platter of hot, cold, fresh, smoked and pickled ingredients hauled out of nearby sea lochs. One last ramble up to the headland and then a nightcap in the room that saw me leaning out of the window at contorted angles to get just one more photo of the sunset behind Sheildaig Island.

Crianlarich was 158 miles down the track. The first tranche of those were still part of the official NC500 route. Only when we had rounded the head of the Loch Carron at Strathcarron and did we leave the coastal trail behind. But the playlist was still going strong, shuffle mode working its magic: ‘Driver’s Seat’ by Sniff ‘n’ the Tears in recognition of Mrs A pushing on close to 1,000 miles behind the wheel, followed serenditiously by Iggy Pop’s ‘Passenger’ to acknowledge my stretching of witty repartee more thinly than marmite on Ryvita. And one more track was recalled from the memory banks and added to the list. ‘Margaret’ a cult B-side by Marillion was sung lustily, its garrulous reworking of ‘The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomand featuring the classic bastardised line ‘You'll take the acid an' I'll take the dope, an' I'll be stoned before you’.

And on we travelled, on high roads and low roads; with photo stops at Loch Duich and Loch Cluanie; lunch in Fort William; and a thrilling drive across Glencoe.  

I’d been to Crianlarich a few years before with Bryn and Ben as part of a Cally Sleeper trip. This time we stayed in a comfortable lodge house b&b just outside the village. Rob, our incessantly babbling host told us of any easy route across the fields to the pub avoiding the road. Ha ha. After scaling a barbed wire fence next to the railway line, squelching inadvertently into a brown bog and fighting a plume of midges, we clambered back up to the road and took our chances with the hurtling lorries. Much safer.

Back at the b&b, after beer and food in the Rod and Reel, we sat out in the garden to enjoy the last few golden bars of our final Great Scottish Road Trip sunset.  And accompanied by the first real midge attacks of the holiday – we had seen them off until the very last night.

With that, we set sail for England via Moffat in the Borders and Kendal in the Lakes. Gently back down to earth after quite the rarefied trip.

Series navigation: Intro and chapter guide

Previous episode: NC500 part 2

Next episode: Moray


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