My mother’s side of the family is Mackay, and the North Highlands, notably Strathnaver is the old stomping ground for the leaders of the clan Mackay AKA the Lords of Reay. We thought we would take a couple of days off from Lady Ayesha and hire a car and go exploring. Firstly we drove back up the north coast along the winding roads towards Cape Wrath and around to Durness, stopping at Tarbet on the way to eat some smoked salmon we bought off an old lady. I had over estimated how long it would take us to get there as I’m used to passage planning based on about 8mph. Happily we arrived in Durness with plenty of time for a walk around Faraid Head, where we found quite unexpectedly some of the most stunning sand dunes I have seen. They were very tall, partly covered with coastal grasses, except for the natural paths that weaved between them, and the irresistible sand slides own to the sea. The sun came out and we had a lovely stroll along the deserted Balnakeil beach. It made such a change to the poor weather we have been having. We tried to hitch a ride back to our hostel, but it seems that now we are back on the mainland people are less likely to pick you up, even when you are being obviously attacked by midges. We stayed in a comfortable hostel called Lazy Crofters which was full of German backpackers, probably stranded there as the public transport up this way is useless.
The following day we headed over towards Bettyhill. On the way we passed by Loch Eribol; this would have been one of our boltholes had the weather deteriorated on our way around Cape Wrath. We also stopped in the township of Tongue which I had excitedly read was dominated by Castle Varrich, a 14th Century Mackay stronghold. I thought that this would really impress Craig, you know, having castles in the family and all. Alas, this was not to be the case as he likened it to a large potting shed, and to be fair he wasn‘t far off , except that the walls were 4ft thick. So we walked the two miles downhill back to the car and drove on after having some concessionary cream tea in a hotel.
Bettyhill is an old crofting settlement at the seaward end of Strathnaver. At the east end of the village is the former Church of Farr, now the Strathnaver Museum run by a talkative chap who gave me a free copy of the Mackay magazine. In the graveyard of the church can be found the Farr Stone, a Christianised Pictish monument. We were sternly advised to be careful because strange things can happen when standing in front of it!
It stopped raining long enough for us to be able to take a picture and then it started again. This region used to be inhabited and owned by the Mackays, however their land was progressively taken over by the Gordon family or the Earls of Sutherland by 1829. Shortly before then in 1806 the notorious Sutherland Clearances had begun. Basically Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland wanted to “improve” her northern lands, her interest was in maximising opportunities rather than maintaining the traditional way of life. At this time during the industrial and agricultural revolution there was a tremendous desire for “improvement” in all levels of society and the young and beautiful countess felt compelled to be at the forefront of this. The scheme that she and her greedy advisors developed was grandiose in the extreme and involved social engineering on a massive scale. Consequently literally 1000’s of people were cleared using fire and fury when necessary from their land and villages and moved to coastal allotments to make way for sheep, for wool and mutton were in high demand. In the view of the so called “improvers” the land folk would shed their slothful habits and become useful citizens, they were even referred to as banditti by one of the advisors who was eventually charged with murder, but remained rich. The clearances were not limited to the Sutherland Estate, they took place across Scotland and are known as the Highland Clearances.
We drove through the beautiful heather valley of Strathnaver and stopped at the ruins of the 66 buildings of the Grunmore Settlement, which was razed to the ground by Sutherland’s henchman. Life was tough in the extreme here for all sorts of reasons and many people left the area for good and emigrated to America and the New World in search of a better life.
We headed back to Loch Inver along the narrow single track roads, giving way and waving to the stream of modern motor homes. It was a real pleasure driving through such a beautiful and vast landscapes with such courteous happy drivers. The strong winds took a rest for the day and stopped blowing all together when we attempted to sail to the Summer Isles. We had hoped that it might be summery in these Islands and headed off under motor and anchored in Loch Ristol. Legal action under the Trade Descriptions Act is underway and we headed south the following day in the drizzly rain and blustery winds to Gairloch. I can’t overstate how disappointing the weather has been this year. In Shetland I bought a padded immersion suit that fishermen use for offshore fishing as my rather expensive Gill waterproofs are not up to the job of keeping me warm and dry. This would be understandable in February- but August. Grhhhh.
Anyway we couldn’t get to Gairloch as the wind picked up too much and we didn’t fancy going around any exposed headlands so we headed in to Loch Ewe. On the way we passed Gruinard Island, which has a fascinating albeit disturbing history. It was here in 1941 that scientists decided to bomb this “useless” island with anthrax spores. The unsuspecting penned sheep below, no doubt munching away innocently, duly died. Apparently the Germans were carrying out similar experiments. Still, at least we had some weapons to kill the enemy’s sheep. The story doesn’t end there. As spores of anthrax are persistent for years the MOD decided to disinfect the island by soaking the entire surface area in formaldehyde. The island was then returned to its pre-war owner who wasn’t best pleased and understandably never wanted to set foot on it again, and neither did we.
We stayed at the comfortable anchorage on the eastern side of the Isle of Ewe and set sail for Gairloch in the morning. We had a swift downwind sail under main alone from Rubha Reidh to Gairloch and I think the sun even shone.
Gairloch is situated in the picturesque Loch Gairloch. We took a walk to the sparkling Flowerdale falls through the lush heather hewed landscape and finished off with a really satisfying meal at the Old Inn. Far from the mediocrity we have encountered in many eateries which are just out to make cash and have some 16yr old frying everything to death in the kitchen for £5.40/hr, this place had really nice food that someone actually cared about.
We had a number of options the following day for destinations. So we sailed downwind to Loch Torridon, which promised to be one of the most spectacular of the west coast lochs, with the sun shining it lived up to its reputation. The upper loch was exceptional. We wanted to anchor and go for a walk, but the mountains created such squally conditions that we wouldn’t have been able to leave the boat comfortably so we headed off to Portree on the Isle of Skye. By now the wind had picked up from the north to F6, this caused some largish waves to be generated down the narrow stretches of water between Isle of Skye, the islands in the middle and the mainland. We only had a relatively short distance to go and with the wind behind us we found ourselves surfing down the waves which was good fun with the 300m high towering cliffs of Skye above us. We swung in to Portree, past a massive cruise ship leaving the harbour and picked up a mooring. Curiously a little blue fishing boat was belting along, full throttle very close to the cruise ship. It turned out that the cruise ship had pulled up some lobster creels with its anchor which had then got stuck in their bow thruster. God knows what the fishing boat was going to do about it. Portree is a cheerfully painted lively town that attracts cruise ships and other holiday makers. Craig got his hair cut and I had a shower and almost felt respectable again. As the sun was shining we decided to celebrate by inviting the crew of two boats moored nearby over for drinks. We had a lovely evening with Chris and Emma and their beautiful dog Daisy from Ullapool on their Folkboat, Sonas(?) and Helen & Richard from Edinburgh on their Hallberg Rassy (Wild Theme).
The next day we experienced why the Isle of Skye is also called the Island of the Mist in Gallic, as a thick fog settled in the bay. Chris and Emma attempted to leave, and we saw them disappear into the mist. Ekkk. An hour later they were back. As we couldn’t go sailing, we thought we would go for a walk. We rowed over to their boat and they offered us a brandy coffee and shortly all thoughts of walking were abandoned. That evening we all met again for a barbecue and roaring fire on the eastern shore of the bay and watched the sun go down. It started to feel like summer at last.
Sunset Barbecue Portree
The town of Plockton on the mainland east of the Skye Bridge came highly recommended, so that was our next destination. Light winds gently blew us down the Sound of Rassay through the Narrows and on to a late lunch in the pinch between the Crowlin islands. Here we were met by a couple of elderly Dutch sea-kayakers who had been travelling around for 5 weeks in their little boats. It sounded like an amazing trip. After lunch we sailed up Loch Carron, past Cat Island to Plockton.
Plockton really is a pretty little town, with lots of picture postcard cottages with well attended gardens and a number of palm trees, framed by hills of heather and wild flowers. We went for a walk along the poorly maintained path around the bay through the woods which involved climbing over fallen trees to Castle Duncraig. We passed an amazing fir tree on the way which was massive, you would need 5 people joining hands to circle it. There was also an imposing courtyard in the dark woods with the words “Work Hard, Be Honest, Fear God” in big scary letters inscribed over the gatehouse. I think this is a former Wee Free Church area. We eventually arrived at the castle which was actually someone’s home. It didn’t say private anywhere but there were children’s toys lying around and road bollards stacked up in the chapel. Anyway it was all a bit spooky , so we headed back to the pub where we enjoyed Oyster Shots. Now I think oysters are ugly snot monsters, but Oyster Shots sounded interesting, it was essentially a mini Bloody Mary in a shot glass with an oyster. They were actually very tasty. I wonder what they taste like in Champagne?