Susie and I have just been ‘up north’ for a week, up the west coast. Based mainly in and around Gairloch, where we have spent time in each of the past three summers. We had initially thought of a two-island trip, to Arran and thence on to Islay. Named in anticipation no doubt of our third grand-daughter. But neither of us drink whisky, so Islay might have been wasted on us.
Are we getting into a rut ? When we lived in France, initially in Paris in the 1970s, I noticed that many French families went on their summer holidays to the same place year after year. In the way that my friend Clive and his wife Ev went each year to Port Bail in Normandy. And they would drink each summer in the same bars, and eat in what became familiar restaurants.
Life in a pod
We spent the first 4 nights in a pod at Aultgrishin. You drive out of Gairloch past Big Sand, recently adjudged the best beach in Scotland, where we once camped many years, and then another 5 miles up a single track road. The pod was reminiscent of out new garden shed, but well equipped with a comfortable double bed, efficient hot water system, en-suite shower, television, microwave, electric kettle, and toaster. There wasn’t room to unpack nor to undress at the same time. But there was a splendid view over sheep across Loch Gairloch to the Shiant Islands and the Isle of Skye. The owner Mark [from Brighton], who lived next door, came out greet us when we arrived in driving rain and gale-force winds, but after that it was warm and sunny for the rest of our stay.
Back to church in Gairloch
The two churches in Gairloch work well together. We were warmly welcomed at the Church of Scotland, across the road from the golf course. Stuart, the minister, preached an excellent sermon on Friendship, based on the story of David befriending Mehibosheth, Saul’s lame grandson, in 2 Samuel 9. And Stuart and Elspeth, whose father I knew back in the 1990s through the National Bible Society of Scotland, kindly invited us to dinner a couple of days later.
The church shares a car-park with the nine-hole golf course, which fits neatly between the main road and the beach. It was my first outing this year, with predictably mixed results. As an occasional golfer I find that I am happy enough with a few decent shots per round amid the dross. So I was delighted to score a par three on the ninth hole – which I had also done when I was last here !
North to Loch Ewe and Ullapool and beyond
Driving north brought us to the NATO fuel depot and the Russian Arctic Convoy Museum at Aultbea. Wartime convoys assembled here in Loch Ewe and the whole area was under military control. It isn’t really a good time to recall our wartime alliance with Stalin’s Russia. [My maternal grand-father called him Uncle Joe.] But Susie’s father as a young man served as a Surgeon-Lieutenant on the Russian convoys, and she has a soft spot for the museum. Who are encouraging her to apply, several decades late, for her father’s Arctic Star medal.
In Ullapool we spent two nights at Aardvark House [not its real name], which is an extraordinarily comfortable B&B a mile north of the town. It is a ten-room, purpose-built B&B, and the lounge and dining room have picture windows overlooking Loch Broom. So you can watch the Stornaway ferry coming in as you eat your breakfast. And there is also tea and freshly-made home-made cake in the lounge in the afternoons.
Up at Lochinver I walked on the Glencanisp Estate. Glencanisp Lodge was originally built in 1850 as a farmhouse for the Duke of Sutherland’s new sheep farm.When sheep ranching declined it became a shooting lodge for red deer stalking, and was owned by the fabulously wealthy Vestey family. It is now owned by an Assynt community group. It would make an excellent school journey or outward bound centre, but currently seems to lying fallow. There are fine views of Suilven, which from this direction looks almost unclimbable.
A few miles north is Achmelvich, an excellent beach in the sunshine. We were last here camping at Clachtoll in the 1970s. And then we retreated to the Lochinver Larder, a relatively new venture right on the front which offers a wide variety of very fine pies. Susie had poached salmon and I had lamb with mash and gravy. Both recommended.
Inverewe Gardens and Mellon Charles perfumery
After a couple of days we came back south again. The perfumery at Mellon Charles, at the far end of the crofting village overlooking the sea, has a wide variety of artisan soaps and skin care products, many based on locally sourced ingredients. And then, in spite of several coach parties, we were pleased to revisit Inverewe Gardens. These were created from barren land by Osgood Mackenzie in the late 19th century, on an 850 hectare estate bought for him by his mother. He planted a great variety of trees and shrubs, including Corsican Pines, Douglas Fir etc., with the intention of growing as many exotic plants as possible. Planting was continued after his death by his daughter Mairi Sawyer, who gifted the garden and estate to the National Trust for Scotland in 1952.
Back down the A9 – in the rain
We came home across the giant Meccano bridge at Kessock and down the A9. After a week of almost undiluted sunshine it began to rain as we approached Aviemore. Which felt familiar. My suspicion is that it always rains when we drive south on the A9. An anticipated welcome lunch break at BIrnam went badly wrong when the cafe at the Birnam Arts and Conference Centre lost our order. So we came home to Edinburgh instead. Grateful for our time away. And grateful too not to have been struck down by a reported recurrence of COVID in Scotland. And not to have been groped anywhere by a drunken Tory MP.