Travel Diaries: Autumn in Scotland – Rockpooling at High Tide

In the autumn of 2019 we returned to Scotland, to the little holiday cottage on the windswept north west coast. We wanted to see how the changing seasons affected the landscape that we had fallen deeply in love with back in the springtime and timed our trip for when the autumn colours would reach their peak.

As soon as we had recovered from the long journey north, we set out for Durness, eager to see the Atlantic waves crash against the shore.

Our baby daughter was now just-turned-one and still in her carrier, wrapped up in blankets and scarves, huddled against me in the bracing winds.

There is a knack to getting children beach-ready in September in Durness. You master the art of catching gloves and scarfs as the breeze whisks them out of the car boot.

As you first step foot on the sands, a stream runs down from the crags to greet you, ripples under an old arched stone bridge, and then follows you down to the surf.

The clouds above us race by; shafts of sunlight appear for seconds and vanish.

We find a spot where the waves pool between the rocks. Our boys venture forward into the foam and quickly scuttle back, the youngest squealing with delight, every time the tide rushes in just a little quicker and further than expected.

Everywhere new textures catch my eye; just to my side is a cluster of shells that look as ancient as the weathered stone they cling to. I hold my daughter close enough to prod them gently with her mittened hand.

My little son, who speaks only rarely, runs his fingers over the barnacles that edge each rock pool and I just catch his words over the roar of the sea: “same but different!”

I love the deep greens of the seaweed, stretching out to greet the tide. My son reaches out eagerly to touch the beautiful strands, for he has a love of ribbons and streamers, but he gasps and then recoils back at the shock of cold, wet slime.

At a glance, the huge dark standing rocks are shrouded in deep blues and greys … and then, up close, they are streaked with a palette of coppers and deep reds.

Clear bell-like shapes of jellyfish peak up from the sands. From above they shine like polished amber.

A last glance before we take to the road. This is how I alway see Durness in my mind: the dark guardians under ever-moving skies.

On our journey back to the cottage the autumn landscape surrounds us; layers of gold, russet, burnt orange and muted red.

The mountains beckon to us; tomorrow we climb.

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Travel Diaries: Scotland Tour – Hiking in the wild North West

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Today we are pulling on our hiking gear and setting out for a trek along the river. Our cottage is a former hunting lodge. A map on the wall shows an old stag stalking route that leads out towards the sea loch, with a note saying we are welcome to use it as a footpath.

The river valley channels a fierce breeze coming down off the mountains, pushing us along the path, whistling in our ears. Dark blue waves of water follow one after another.

A glance back and we can just make out the roof of our little holiday home, peeking out from the trees.

The gap between the two distant crags leads out from the sea loch to the Atlantic Ocean, where dolphins can be sometimes spotted. Across the water, mountains slope steeply upwards and a winding road leads away to Kinlochbervie. To our left, treacherous grassy tufts of peat bogs and silt. We hold the hands of our little ones tightly.

The land flattens here and we feel the full force of the winds. We have to shout to hear each other and even then our voices seem to quickly drift away.

Picking our way across the slippery seaweed, we spot a tiny bothy with a smokeless chimney and set out to investigate.

The small building is shuttered and unoccupied. Whilst one of my sons is planning where his vegetable plot would be if we lived here, my husband and the other boys have run down to the shingle beach together.

As I get closer I can faintly hear the giggling of my youngest son, as great gusts of wind inflate the arms of his coat.

Our second son is now searching for a small stone to take home, to remember the holiday by. It now sits in pride of place at the top of our stream in the garden, which is a tiny replica of this very river. We wonder what is over the ridge to our left and decide to climb up the rocks to see.

To our delight, it is a large stretch of water, much calmer than the swift river. The sun emerges from the clouds and each ripple in the loch suddenly glistens with the bright light, shimmering as they flow towards us.

We climb up onto the rocks to rest. My daughter is fast asleep in her carrier, despite the gales. My husband climbs the short drop down to the beach, too high for our children to safely follow. Meanwhile, our youngest son wants to scale the rocks at speed. I dig my walking boots in to anchor myself as he tugs me upwards.

After a lovely picnic, we start to head back, taking the slightly more sheltered, higher route, away from the shore. The footing turns out to be more waterlogged than it looks and it is easy to sink in by half a foot with each step, muddy water threatening to ooze into our boots. The trick is to walk very fast with light footsteps before that can happen.

We are afforded a stunning view of the distant Ben Stack on our return journey, silhouetted against a pristine blue sky.

Since we are on an estate and not a public footpath, I wonder how close the next nearest person to us might be.

As we crest a rugged outcrop, there is our little cottage by the river again.

Knowing we are nearly back, we are able to take lots of time to pause and admire the view that surrounds us. If you look hard enough, everywhere seems to offer a little path, beckoning you to explore further.

One final corner. A path leads to the top of this hill – though that is for another time. We are certain we will return here soon.

Across the river is the little bank in front of the house, filled with trees that the children have been running through and climbing…

… and here is the familiar bridge and its rapids, where a favourite toy was rescued just days ago.

My baby daughter is now sleeping at a really unhelpful sideways angle that makes climbing a little difficult. When I catch up with the other, I find my eldest son and his younger brother, leant with their heads together, resting. I manage to sneak a photo before they notice me and spring up ready to go.

Tomorrow we will leave our cottage in the North West of Scotland and drive south to Edinburgh. We have booked to stay in an historic building on one of the city’s busiest streets … it is going to be quite the culture shock.

A short video, so that you can see how breezy it was and how fast the water was moving, as the photographs look deceptively calm and sunny – enjoy.

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Travel Diaries: Scotland Tour – Durness, Loch Eriboll, the Kyle of Tongue and Altnaharra

Refreshed by mugs of piping hot chocolate, we are back on the road. We are planning to charge our electric car at the Charge Scotland point next to The Tongue Hotel. It is mid April 2019 and the weather is being increasingly good to us.

A haze of smoke still drifts above Durness, from the heather burnings the evening before, though blue skies await us ahead.

We bid goodbye to the sandy bays around Smoo Cave, sticking to the coastal roads and taking in the sea views.

Ceannabeinne Beach is scribbled down in my notebook as a place to return to. How stunning it looks, as slopes crowned in heather lead down to pristine sands and turquoise waves.

At Loch Eriboll, the roads curve around the feet of dark craggy mountains. We weave in and out of their shadows. Sheep stare at the car and, after giving it some thought, take their time meandering out of the way.

As the road climbs upwards, we spot a sign for “Moine House” and pull in. Walking down the pathway, a panoramic, too large to take in at once, displays a mountain vista from Ben Griam Beg all the way across to Ben Hope. Layer upon layer of ever deeper reds carpet the marshy ground up to a sudden shard of blueish peaks. I struggle to take a photograph whilst holding onto my glasses, hat, scarf, and mittens as the strong winds rattle along the open valley and threaten to steal them away. The clouds are moving so swiftly that every picture I take shows a completely different sky.

Back down at sea-level, the calmness of the scene at the Kyle of Tongue causeway, with far reaching views out to Ben Loyal, stays with me even now. The crisp blue of the steel railing seemed to merge with the rippling water, the crags beyond and the endless sky. Windows down, we could breathe in the cold salty air and hear the waves lapping.

The staff at The Tongue Hotel could not have been more pleasant and welcoming as we waited a short while for our car to charge. We are greeted with this same kindness everywhere we travel throughout north Scotland.

Travelling onwards, in Altnaharra, at the edge of a small village, we meet our first wild stag. He watches us for a moment before gracefully leaping and disappearing off into a thicket.

Then we turn back towards Scourie, the landscape looking ever more like the wind-shaped trees and foaming river, with its grassy banks, that runs past our holiday cottage.

Tomorrow we will be exploring a sea loch, hiking alongside rocky shores and out towards the ocean.

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Travel Diaries: Scotland Tour – Smoo Cave on the clearest of days

As we set out towards Durness the next morning, the mountains are still cloaked in the smoke of yesterday evening’s heather burnings.

Smoo Cave is found just a little east of Durness. It is the clearest of days, yet the breeze over the cliff tops is enough to send our smaller children scattering and we hold their hands tightly. After some time spent allocating and applying scarves, mittens, hats and extra layers to our five children, we descend the steps together.

The bridge we can see far below leads to the cave entrance, over a river than runs out to the sea. Gulls perch precariously on small tufted ledges.

It is cold in the lea of the cliffs and my daughter huddles against me in her baby carrier. I arrange my scarf so that we are both wrapped in it and then follow the boys across the bridge into the warm sunshine. It is not quite the tourist season yet and we have the place to ourselves.

We have visited natural caverns before, but our children have never seen a cave mouth this looming and large. Their heads tilt back as they take in the sheer scale.

A natural sky light illuminates the space and a rickety looking covered walkway leads onwards. We are delighted to find that it is intended for visitors, and not merely a relic for show.

It leads off into darkness. The children eagerly press on.

It ends in a wooden viewing point, revealing a waterfall cascading into a pool that, in turn, feeds the river that meanders seawards. A sign says that in the summer months, a boat trip can be taken through the caverns.

We listen to the beautiful sound of the splashing water, which is amplified around the small chamber, before turning back to explore the main cave.

“This is the best moment of the trip so far!” Shouts one of our sons, and, to his surprise, it is echoed back many times.

I wait behind to get a snap of all of my boys, husband included, standing on the bridge waving back at me.

It is then time to see the waves and get a better perspective of the vastness of Smoo Cave from a distance.

As always, I am way behind everyone else, carrying my (now sleeping) baby daughter and happily lost in my note taking and photography.

It is time to make the steep return ascent. A hot chocolate at Cocoa Mountain beckons.

Afterwards, we will spend the rest of the day following the coastal roads. Our aim is to search out the best view of the stunning mountain Ben Hope, the most northernly of the Munros.

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Travel Diaries: Scotland Tour – Sunset at Durness and a heather burning

We left our little holiday cottage near Scourie as dusk fell, taking the road north to watch the sun setting over Durness beach.

Driving very carefully, due to livestock not hearing our car’s electric engine, we roll over a road marking that makes me smile. Slow is an instruction not just for the vehicle but the passengers too … time to embrace the beauty around us, stop looking at our watches and breathe.

The road follows the course of the River Dionard as it gently meanders its way through a heather-clad mountain valley. It has been a long and busy day and, as the light starts to dim, our three youngest children fall fast asleep.

The landscape changes as the river joins the Kyle of Durness, where the sloping hills meet drifts of sand. With the car window slightly down, I can taste the sea salt in the air.

Our eldest son has been looking forward to this moment since we started planning our trip. Here we are, at the most northerly coast of Britain.

We tell him that we could not have done this without him. He has sat for this long journey between his seven month old baby sister and his youngest brother. He has picked up dropped toys before tears began. When his autistic sibling had suddenly panicked at the low sun and sudden air pressure drop as we drove up into the Cairngorms, our eldest son had soothed him, held his hand and helped him to settle.

I encourage our teenaged son to go up to the cliff, listen to the waves crashing, feel the fierce coastal breeze on his face and know that if he can help us to make this epic road trip a reality, with all the difficulties we have overcome to get here, he can surely do anything he sets his mind to.

My husband and I take it in turns, one of us always with the still-dozing tiny ones, to take in the view. Durness is more beautiful than a photograph can convey. Glassy pools reflect the ever-changing light, where monolithic rocks stand anchored against the crashing waves.

As the wind changes, we notice a sudden strong ashen smell in the air and, looking westwards, smoke plumes are now drifting out to sea from beyond the cliffs.

The owner of Mather’s, the little late hour shop we stop at before leaving, tells us that a planned heather burning has gotten out of control, due to the sudden gale force winds. He was not at all worried. A fleet of fire engines are starting to noisily arrive, and we can now see that the nearest mountain peaks are scorched with line after line of fierce flames. It was a sight that will always stay with me, but not one I photographed – the safest course of action was to get out of the smoky air and safely back to Scourie. Our three littlest ones slept on, oblivious.

The fires blaze on the east side of the Kyle, though the westward peaks are serene, beneath a purplish blue sky.

We arrive safely back at the little cottage by the river, tuck the little ones into bed and watch the remaining light ebb away over the sea loch from the kitchen window. We talk about the brave fireman, out on the hills, possibly still battling the flames as night falls. The shopkeeper had told me they were well practised and all would be well.

For now, rest. Tomorrow, we plan to return to the north coast and explore Smoo Cave.

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Travel Diaries: Scotland Tour – A little cottage near Scourie and a riverside adventure

We arrive at our holiday cottage, a little north of Scourie, in the late afternoon. It is early April and spring has sprung in the mountains. The little garden is carpeted with daffodils and, just beyond, a small wooden gate leads out to the river bank.

The skies are still blue, and the trees are filled with blossom. The visitor book in the hallway states that eagles can be regularly spotted here, and I keep glancing around, just in case.

Our children are glad to run around and stretch their legs after so much travel and we agree that the only thing we are missing is a little boat to row over to that island in the middle of the river. It would make a brilliant picnic and bird watching spot.

When the children climb into the trees, they are fascinated by the lichen, crisp and crumbly, and then purposefully step around it to leave it intact. My daughter, in her baby carrier, leans over and runs her fingers through the fronds.

A pathway leads us upstream. We spot another route on the opposite bank, in the lea of a small rocky fell, and decide we will definitely cross the bridge a little way away and explore the other side tomorrow. Our eldest son takes care of his younger brother, holding his safety reign, and my husband keeps a hold of a hand and reigns of our profoundly autistic youngest son, who has an acute fascination with running water.

We reach the bridge, where the water cascades, white and foamy, around huge outcrops of imposing rock. The spray covers our faces if we get closer. Our youngest son is utterly exhilarated by the thunderous noise, which we not only hear but also feel in tremors beneath our feet, and impulsively throws his favourite toy right into the centre of the rapids!

He has no comprehension that it is now floating off to the Atlantic Ocean. Our son is usually silent, but now he is shouting with delight, cheering his toy on.

My husband manages, incredibly, to fish toy Woody out of a swirling eddy and back safely onto dry land using a large fallen branch.

We head back inside, and Woody dries out in front of the lovely warm aga whilst we brew a cup of tea. We all perch on stools and enjoy the view from the kitchen window of the gently meandering sea loch.

Next we are packing the car again – although only with warm coats, hats, scarves, mittens and wellies this time. We are off to watch the sun setting over Durness beach. It will be the first time that any of us have seen the northern-most coast of Britain.

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Travel Diaries: Scotland Tour – Ullapool, Kylesku and Scourie

We take the scenic route from Aviemore through Bonor Bridge and into the mountains. We wonder if anything can match the sheer splendour of the snowcapped Cairngorms in the early spring sunshine, and I feel a reluctance at having to leave so soon.

We drive due west, straight across the country to the bustling port of Ullapool and are rewarded with our first sight of the beautiful western coastline. We stock up on a few supplies at the supermarket whilst our car is plugged into the carpark’s ChargePlace Scotland charger. We have our fingers crossed as we’ll be relying on these, rather than Tesla chargers or Ecotricity, whilst we are in the middle of nowhere, and this is our first attempt. A moment of holding our breath and … phew – it is easy to use and works perfectly. We can relax now! It is very breezy here, despite the bright sunshine, and our youngest son is almost lifted off the ground as he munches on a sandwich.

Picnic eaten and car battery full, we then turn northwards and are on the final stretch. The skies are the clearest blue and we can see every detail in the distant mountains.

The route takes us alongside Loch Assynt and Ardvrek Castle and although we cannot stop now as we are aiming to reach our holiday cottage and unpack before dark, we do return in the Autumn to climb up to see the waterfall that feeds the stream you can see in the foreground.

We drive over the famous Kylesku Bridge, a well-known landmark along the North Coast 500 route. I am positively itching to grab my walking boots and get out and explore.

Vast evergreen forests meet the shorelines of the lochs. Every distant mountain seems larger than the last.

Yellow gorse lines the roadside and we do not see another car for twenty minutes at a time. Having an electric car that runs near-silently means we have to be very careful of wildlife, as animals cannot hear our engine coming. We wind our windows down and breathe in the crisp pure air.

I am startled to see whole vistas without a tree in sight. We live in a forested area and I am used to the Peak District and The Lakes. The crags here are stark and imposing, with nothing to interrupt the view of the rocks and scree for miles.

The light seems to shift and change, moment by moment. Looking through my archive now, photographs taken within seconds of each other look entirely different.

We find our lovely little holiday cottage just north of Scourie, unpack and then quickly get on our walking gear to explore the river that runs past the garden. This will be our base for the next four days – a nature lover’s paradise.

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