Showing posts with label Scotland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scotland. Show all posts

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Visiting the Scottish Highlands independently.

The road around the Northwest corner of Scotland
Some destinations are boring, some become boring and others have complete tediousness thrust upon them. Sadly, increasing numbers of “tourist destinations” are falling into the spectrum of tedium as vastly increasing numbers of tourists descend upon them with anxious visitors ticking boxes, and completing “bucket lists”.

Ironically, escape is simple; unfortunately, the powerful “web” through which we get so many ideas is driven by extraordinarily powerful forces whose interests are usually and increasingly at odds with our own.

Take, for example, VisitScotland. This governmental marketing body is well respected, does some very fine work in promoting the country, offers a wide variety of opportunities for visitors, but remains completely out of touch with the vast majority of the Scottish industry.

St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall
Majority, of course, because visitors go where they are told; the global idiom of the travel world is simple. Governments tell you why you should visit a place, and the industry tells you how. 

Governments tell you why you should visit by encouraging journalists to visit, designing and executing major marketing campaigns and using a variety of other tools in their chest. Then the industry follows suit; hotels are built in destinations that receive the most marketing, major tour operators design programs that will fill these hotels, and the die is cast; success breeds success and the country is the winner.

And fewer visitors get to see some of the countries' hidden treasures, ticked away as they are in the remote nooks and crannies of the nation. Like St. Magnus Cathedral; founded in 1137, this gorgeous building dominates the Kirkwall skyline, and offers visitors a remarkable timeline of these remarkable islands.

Durness Coastline 
And it is the same the world  over; look around you; Canada’s tourism is very successful, but Manitoba’s is in the tank. The Languedoc in the Southwest of France does not keep up with the “trends” offered by the French tourism folks and, and to Argentinians, tourism is Buenos Aires, Patagonia or the wineries of Mendoza. The world all follow that pattern, and national tourist boards need to do more to realise that they are funded by an entire nation, and not simply the top four attractions.

Thus the bigger operators get bigger and the wealth is concentrated. A familiar theme?

Well, after this long introductory ramble, I need to move to the Scottish Highlands. I have been here now for ten days, on a spectacular journey through the historical millennia of their past, through landscapes that took my breath away, past seascapes that left me staring for hours, into restaurants whose fare would stand out in any of the world’s major centres and stayed in hotels whose charm exuded the overwhelming hospitality and understated charm of the region.

Be Hope on eh remote "Hope Road"
And other tourists? Few and far between. It is, of course, March, but Edinburgh, Loch Lomond and St. Andrews are full up, but too few visitors escape the confines of their “package” and set themselves free and actually explore.

It is worth noting that much of this can be done by public transport and local taxi, if you don't care to drive. Driving, though, is actually pretty straightforward as there is little other traffic to be seen. The train and bus system in Scotland is simple, integrated and fun.

A combination of trains (and the Highland Line from Inverness to Thurso is really delightful), ferries to cross to the Orkney Islands, and further to Shetland if one has the time, are available and easy to work with. Even in the most rural areas, the Royal Mail Post Bus will carry you to the most extreme parts of the country. While deep exploration needs a little planning, it is quite possible, and the pay off is huge.

This view of leaving Stromness has changed little since the days of the Hudson Bay Company 

A journey from arrival at Aberdeen Airport by train to Forres, an historically important town in Moray and a good two-night stay would be a good start. It is a medieval town, with strong reference to the Real Macbeth, and a delightful garden setting. From there, I would continue in to Inverness, only twenty miles away, and spend a day before heading north on The Orkney Bus to the Northern Isles.

 Highland scenes - a novel use for a bus shelter!

There, steeped in the history of the Bronze Age, the Vikings, the Second World War and the mosaic of art and crafts that have woven their past together, I would stay for a three days at on of Kirkwall’s hotels. Northlink Ferries offer a great  schedule to and from the islands, and by taking the 4.30 sailing to Scrabster and spending the night in Thurso (I love the Pentland Hotel), a £5 cab ride from the terminal. Thurso is a solid, quintessentially northern Scottish town, and a testament to “building buildings that are meant to last”.

Kirkwall Harbour
From Thurso, the train south to Brora will leave you in a most attractive town on the east coast. Here one can rent a vehicle for a couple of days from Northern Car Hire, and head inland toward Altnaharra, Hope and the northwest coast. Returning after one overnight in the wilds, and a two-day drive, you can return the car to Brora and continue south on the train to Inverness.

Just writing out this itinerary makes me want to do it again and again. And the folks at VisitScotland? Well, they react to pressure from numbers, pay lip service to the periphery of their country and leave the explorations of The Highlands and other more remote parts of Scotland up to the initiative of the individuals who truly want to get beyond the maddening crowds. 

It is understandable, but as time moves forward at its incessant rate, the relative strength of the central brand destinations will increase, and the margins will become increasingly marginalised. Does this sound familiar?

I love The Highlands.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Scotland; all fun and games

Scotland is a truly peculiar destination, and touring in Scotland - its Highlands, its Lowlands, its cities or its islands offer visitors more variety than one can shake a proverbial stick at.

It is also, one of those countries that virtually every visitor believes that they know before they arrive; they know because, as the Scots themselves say “Everyone in the world is either Scottish or wishes that they were”; an exaggeration, perhaps, but there is certainly something in this remarkable place for everyone, and most of the jewels need a little fossicking. 

I have been fortunate to have been here many, many times. The first visit was back in about 1972 when, infatuated with a Scottish girl who I had met on a school cruise, I decided to hitch-hike to East Lothian to see her. I recall her bewildered parents when I arrived, and Anne herself (for that was her name) was equally bemused to see me turn up at the farm gate early one morning. In those days, of course, there was no internet, and communication was sparse. I did, however, spend an enjoyable few days, and in the timeless way of fathers was introduced to the joys of farming; having arranged my first driving licence (tractors only), and shown me a field to clear, I enjoyed the first few days and then left hitch back to London, some 350 miles to the south. I still have the licence.

In subsequent years, my visits have taken me in more comfort at times, and from the gorgeous rolling hills and ineffaceable sense of time in The Borders to the remote islands of Shetland, I have travelled the length and breadth of the country.

The islands of the north and west are communities unto themselves; the remote isles of Shetland slowly reviving an identity in the 21st century are most interesting. They are easily accessible either by air or through the splendid services of Northlink, a ferry company serving Orkney and Shetland from Aberdeen. And these islands, steeped in the history of the Vikings, and home to some of Europe’s finest archaeological sites are to be savoured.

In almost complete contrast the rigged islands of the Outer Hebrides are exercises in stoicism, visible in the architecture of everything from the small stone crofts to the concrete bus shelters designed to withstand some mighty gales; there are thriving communities and there are abandoned communities, and one, an island some fifty miles of the western shore was abandoned in the 1930s after hundreds of years of habitation.

A bus shelter on Lewis

The island, St. Kilda, has to be one of the most evocative places that I have visited; it has given its name to the suburb of Melbourne, founded by some of the first St. Kildans to emigrate away from their brutal life of bird catching, bird plucking and bird eating on an isolated, windy and craggy rock in the Atlantic ocean. However it was exactly those features that attracted me to the island, and a few years ago I headed out in a smallish boat to visit Hirta.

Approaching St. Kilda

The Bay on Hirta

Stac Lee and Bororay

The journey took about four hours,  one passenger actually turned a fetching shade of green and spent the whole time on land praying for an airport to be suddenly constructed. It wasn’t, but the weather picked up, and the day on the island was simply gorgeous. Some of the houses on Main Street have been restored by volunteers from the National Trust and somehow the atmosphere of the island still felt inhabited; perhaps by the spirits of the long forgotten islanders, or perhaps from the simple strength of character that has been woven into the island’s fabric during their hundreds of years of harsh tenancy. Whichever it was, I loved the day, and became completely mesmerised by the hundreds of thousands of birds living on the rugged stacks; it was a visit that I would like to repeat.

Main Street
Heading to the Bird Cliffs
 And far from these remote islands, there are hundreds of villages and towns that exude “Scotland”; Dornoch, Huntly, Melrose, Stornoway, Stromness, Brae,  Drymen and so many others are wonderful destinations, and all so easily accessible to visitors wanting to step, just a little, from the beaten path.

And finally, in this note about Scotland, I would be remiss to show my hand, and say that (friends notwithstanding), I prefer Glasgow to Edinburgh! Glasgow is wonderful; heavy, secure, beautiful and with some of the regions greatest museums (a couple of reasonable football teams), fine monuments and terrific restaurants and nightlife. On the other hand, Glaswegians do have a virtually impenetrable accent.

When you visit Scotland, however, be sure to explore; the brands are great, but the soul of the country lies in its depth and lies in the people who live in the remarkable communities that weave the unique fabric that is Scotland.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Scotland; The Northwest in November

Touring in the Scottish Highlands is always a joy, and travelling the far-north of this wonderful destination is always an exercise in surprises.

The scenery is breathtaking, the communities are charming, the food is memorable, accommodation delightful and the weather always a subject of conversation. This trip was no exception, and having decided to spend a few days in the South Of The North Of Scotland, with friends who dwell in Ardgay, I suggested a two-day drive to the north coast.

The A838 - the busy northwestern highway!

I had my reasons; in search of a series of Around Britain driving programs, I needed to find some suitable accommodation and ideas for this part of the country, and besides, I had taken the road from Ullapool around the northwest cape to Durness once before, and it was truly one of themost spectacular roads it has been my privilege to drive.

The Northwest Scottish coast
And so, with accommodation (dog-friendly) arranged at the Borgie Lodge, we set out along the shores of Lochs Shin and More heading to the coast. The sun shone, the copper colours of the fading autumn reflecting in the still waters of the lochs were extraordinary. We stopped to gasp and photograph frequently, and by the time that we reached the “Main Road” at Laxford Bridge, we had completely used up our supply of superlatives, and were almost silent as we headed to Kinlochbervie and the quite remarkable Oldshoremore Beach.
Oleshoremore Beach

Now I drop these names for a reason or two. Firstly, those of you heading to the northwest of Scotland should add them to your must-see list; it is all too easy to pick communities at random, after all, they all look the same on a map, but the cluster of communities at the Rubha na Leacaig (and no, I have no clue what it means) are absolutely delightful. The beaches are superb, if a tad chilly, the villages old and secure in the way that communities many hundreds of years can be, and the atmosphere of the coastline epitomises the region.

It is difficult to quite grasp the lifestyle of sea communities in the far north; obviously fishing and beachcombing are their traditions, but living in such distant and climatically challenging villages makes one perceive the world in a quite different way. I am a tad envious of this perspective, and realising that I am, growing up in the centre of London, as far from a Gaelic seafarer as one can be, look at their lives through rose-tinted glasses. One forgets the danger of the oceans as romantic ideals of the sea flood though one’s mind, and those gorgeous, white-painted cottages that huddle together in the small villages evoke such images that the thought of their heating bills, and drafty stonework rarely impede. In truth, the reality of village life in the distant northwest of Scotland is one of community, and while there are many leaving the region for the comforts and work of the cities, there are many migrating the other way in search of a less stressful existence; one can only hope that each find their own peace.

And so, after letting the dogs run and splash on the beach, we continued north along the now single-tracked road to Durness.

Oldmoreshore Beach
Access to Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point of the UK is by ferry across the Kyle of Durness which operates somewhat eccentrically. In the off-season, which is now, it operates according to the weather, and only by going to the ferry point and reading the instructions can one get an idea of the possibility of sailing. Yesterday, it simply said “No Sailing Today”, so that was that. We returned to Durness for a sandwich and continued along the coast to Tongue.

Pocan Smoo
The road is truly extraordinary; one jumps hundreds of millions of years at the turn of Loch Eriboll where we are informed that the lands on either side of this waterway are from different millennia, and one can see a dramatic change in the agriculture and features of the land. As we continued from here, the land became flatter and intermittently there were more cattle grazing, and more frequently huge stags peering at us from their vantage points in the moorlands.

Sunset at Loch Hope
And so we continued until dark, which came at precisely 4.11pm, a touch early, and an impediment to full-on sightseeing, but for us it was ideal, and time to enjoy the hospitality of the Borgie Lodge, our destination for the night.

It was, and probably still is a slightly unusual place; rated with four stars by the Scottish Tourist Board, two stars by the AA, and by us as a mixture of the spectrum of stars that we could imagine. More about The Lodge in due course.

Sunset from the causeway at Tongue