Skye’s the Limit: An Unprepared but Bonny Road Trip Through The Highlands.
I’ve lived in Scotland for almost two years now, and yet my experience of the Scottish Highlands is fairly limited. Granted, I’m a university student and I don’t own a car, but it’s quite painstaking to be so close to some of the most breathtaking views and natural wilderness in the UK and to not really leave the city a lot of the time. That’s why I’ve resolved to try to explore Scotland as much as possible. In my time here so far I’ve managed to go hiking a couple of times; the Isle of Arran and Goat Fell, Ben Lomond, Argyle and Bute’s Loch Awe and the Cruachan Power Station, gentle strolls around picturesque Oban, and The West Highland Way. Well… admittedly only half of The West Highland Way; we rather unfortunately got snowed out halfway through attempting it back in March last year. Basically, we weren’t equipped for extreme weather conditions and after hearing a story about a man who died walking alone in the snow decided to cut our losses. I hate leaving things unfinished, though, so I will definitely be back to complete it at some point.
Anyway, failures aside, my point stands: Scotland is beautiful, and it’s worth exploring as much as you can. That’s why, with one week left in Glasgow until I move to the Southern Hemisphere for a year and spend some time down under, Izzie and I decided to rent a car and go exploring. Having just ticked off exams, and being generally the spontaneous, or rather ramshackle, planners that we are, I hadn’t thought much ahead of renting a car. Plus the car rental itself I did the day before and having not driven since I passed my test 3 years ago. So, under-prepared, to say the least. But that’s part of the fun, right?
“It’s surreal, arresting landscape looks almost like it’s simulated from a Mario Cart game; jutting out along the coast of loch after loch…”
Now the night before I had evidently caught some of Doug’s river disease, (if you’re not sure what I’m on about, he explains in depth here) and so, after violently throwing up, I stubbornly refused to cancel the trip and managed to get myself down to the car rental place in town. After filling in a few details, I was off. Well, kind of. I mean the man from the rental company had to come outside to help me start the car. Embarrassing.
And then I got lost. In my hometown. Where I live and navigate every day. Call myself a bloody adventurer? But in all seriousness, it is really hard to navigate around Glasgow’s one-way system with no SatNav, map or internet so to speak of. Especially if you’ve never driven here before. I ended up on south side completely forlorn, and a couple of trips up and down the M8 later, I finally found my way over to Great Western Road to pick up my friend Izzie and set off for Skye. Halfway out of Glasgow I realised I’d forgotten my hiking boots. After turning back, we were finally on the road and heading towards Skye, a good deal later than expected. And it was stunning. Driving through the Highlands is one of the most beautiful drives I think I’ve ever done. It’s surreal, arresting landscape looks almost like it’s simulated from a Mario Cart game; jutting out along the coast of loch after loch, with few cars in sight.
We drove and drove all the way up to Mallaig where we watched the last ferry for the night pull off for Skye. Undeterred, we enquired how long it would take to drive around to the Isle of Skye instead: 2 ½ hours. It was already gone 8pm – no thanks! Looking around, we decided to hike up to the top of the hills overlooking this quaint wee town. After scrambling through some thorns and bushes and a little river, we reached a path that we definitely could have taken instead. No matter, onwards and upwards as they say. At the top, we had the choice between lumpy but dry land or flatter but slightly squelchy. We opted for dry but lumpy, reasoning we’d just nuzzle into a nice spot between the lumps. Unpacking our tents, I quickly discovered I’d left my poles at home. I haven’t used my tent since I’d got replacement poles for it, and sensibly, as is often the case with me, forgotten to put them in my tent bag. Joy of joys. Sharing a tent it is. Turned out to be the better decision anyway – it was cold!
Next morning, back down to the car for breakfast and Morrison’s value coffee made on a camp stove, which for two coffeeholic’s, trust me, is even worse than it sounds. I promised that we’d seek out real coffee once we got to the other side of the water.
The ferry journey was marked by the hire car alarm going off repeatedly. Our car seemed to be the one going off the most. Honestly, I really don’t know how to work a car, what had I got myself into?
Finally on Skye, we headed for the renowned Fairy Pools for a rainy and windy hike. A part of me is disappointed in the terrible weather that morning, I wish we’d had a brighter sky with fewer clouds and better light. But another part of me realises that this is Scotland, and the thing about Scotland is that the weather just is. Take it or leave it. (But if you leave it, you’ll never get to explore the stunning wilderness at its heart.) As Billy Connolly has wisely noted, “there are two seasons in Scotland. June and winter,” and even then…
Next, the Talisker distillery. Less outdoorsy admittedly, but also pretty stunning in its own right. I couldn’t drink which was a shame. But I’m a firm believer in leading sensory experiences with your nose, and boy does this place smell. We spent the tour sniffing out each room, wafted with crisp smells of cucumber, celery, brown sugar, and finally the beautiful sharp burn of whisky. If you haven’t been, I think Skye is worth a trip for Talisker alone. The history of Scotland’s finest distillery is pretty interesting too.
To pack as much into this day as possible, we decided to head round and out of Skye again, over the bridge this time, and towards Fort William, hitting the Eilean Donan Castle on the way down, which to add to the dreamlike surroundings, looks like it’s cut out of a pop-up picture book.
Next stop, Ben Nevis.
Okay, we didn’t have time to climb all the way to the peak, courtesy of our bad planning ahead skills, but it’s another one I’m going to return to, that I can promise. Instead, we decided to hike up a little way and perch up there for our dinner and some vino. There is something incredibly special about cooking on a camp stove in the wilderness with a view like that. It negates all the discomfort of the cold, and the wet, and makes you realise why you’ve got to love nature, why people like us spend our summers not showering and sleeping in a tent in order to get to peaks far away from any semblance of civilisation. Also, instant mushroom soup tastes surprisingly good out of a camp mug and washed down with some decent red wine.
“A big part of me can really picture myself moving to the Highlands, buying a big house and living there with lost of kids and a couple of pet huskies.”
Day 3 was ‘return home’ day. And I was a little nervous about getting lost or not getting back in time so we set off earlyish to cram in a few more major points of interest en route. Glenfinnan Viaduct, more commonly referred to by us as ‘that bridge with the flying car in the Harry Potter movies’. The Jacobite Steam Train came past too – pretty special. Now this might have been the perfect moment to set up the slackline and mark ourselves out to be true adventuring hipsters, but alas the set drizzle was deterring.
Driving back again I spied a brown tourist information sign for ‘Neptune’s Staircase’, well why not mark off another tourist spot? So I swerved off and drove up. A little disappointing. At least for a lass who has grown up on the river Thames and seen an abundance of locks in her lifetime. Still the theory of it is pretty interesting: 8 locks in a row which take an average of 90 minutes to pass through. The gates weigh a tremendous 22 tonnes each and a minimum of 3 lock keepers is needed at any one time to operate them. Built in the early 1800’s, it’s a pretty smart system.
Back on the road and Glasgow bound we stopped for lunch and a wilderness wee by the side of the road; some beautiful scenery. And then again for ice cream. It was freezing cold, raining, and we’d resolved to cook all of our food over the course of the trip, but we both agreed that ice cream is a right of passage when you go on holiday.
A final drive back to Glasgow, back to city life, and though looking forward to a warm shower, I was already starting to miss the countryside. A big part of me can really picture myself moving to the Highlands, buying a big house and living there with lots of kids and a couple of pet huskies. It’s a life I wouldn’t hesitate to consider. But I know I’d get itchy feet. I miss the Highlands, and Scotland in general, already. But I know I’ll be back, always persistent but fleeting, determined to discover a little deeper, to make more memories and to always remember that the sky is never the limit.
“Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.”
– Robert Burns