Northwest is best

Returning to Torridon and beyond

Over a year ago I made my first foray to the far Northwest of Scotland. Having only been as far as Little Gruinard Bay, I was keen to explore further and reach Assynt and the fabled hills of Stac Pollaidh and Suilven and prove the mantra – Northwest is Best.

Overnight in Glencoe

I left after work to visit Mum and get something to eat before heading north around 8 in the evening, making my way up the Loch Lomond road towards Glencoe where I would sleep for the night in the car.

What I had failed to take account of in my minimal planning for this trip was, that this was a bank holiday weekend. Even late in the evening, the A82 had slow-moving traffic as I followed a hired camper vans up the loch side. In the dark, they had even less idea where they were going. This isn’t a road for overtaking at the best of times, so I sat patiently and cruised northwards. I was in no rush.

It was after 10 when I reached Glencoe. I folded down the back seats and got into my sleeping bag. Dozing off while listening to a movie play on my iPad. I was soon out for the count.

Misty Mountains and tourist traps 

I woke to an orange glow in the steamy rear window of the car. I de-misted, and made for the cafe at Glencoe Mountain Resort. I got myself some breakfast and a cup of tea. The Ski hill was hosting an ultra marathon and the cafe was full of wiry athletes registering for their races. Many sporting midge nets as well as running gear. I didn’t blame them. Even the short walk from car to cafe had me running to escape clouds of this little critters.

After breakfast I drove through Glencoe itself, but not without many stops. It was a beautiful;, blue sky day, but with the added embellishment of cotton like clouds hanging off the majestic mountains and in the glens. Real postcard material, and I just couldn’t pull myself away. It seemed to take an age before I came out the other end on the road to Fort William. It was just too beautiful.

Buachaille Etive Mòr Three Sisters Glencoe

I had decided to stop in the town of Fort William. The rear of the car had not been too comfortable to sleep in, so I stopped to buy a roll-mat to lie on. I had 3 more nights, so I figured it was worth the small investment. I also picked up a spare gas canister for my Jetboil and some supplies from the supermarket. The town was busy with holiday makers and the petrol stations were full of motorhomes and travellers like myself. Again, it took me a while to get organised and leave the town with its hoards before I was on the road north again. Aiming for Torridon, stopping briefly for a coffee near Eilean Donnan Castle.

Wester Ross Coastal Trail

I continued up the coastal route to Loch Carron with a brief stop at Shieldaig and the Liathach. It was still sunny and the Torridon mountains looked stunning with their quartzite capped summits dazzling in the sunlight.

I stopped several times on the Kinlochewe road, through the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. I took some time to hike away from the roadside to get some photographs. Eventually I reached Loch Maree with its awesome views of Slioch looming over the loch and its many islands. There were several people stopped in the parking area. I did contemplate staying here for the night and capturing the sunset lighting the mountain, but this was around 6 o’click and there were a couple of hours left. I thought I could grab something to eat when I passed a nearby hotel, but a glance through the window revealed an establishment far too posh for the likes of me, having already spent one night sleeping in the car.

I decided to push on to Gairloch and I stopped in Strath to eat some fish and chips for my dinner. I ate my food on the slipway while watching the sun get low to the horizon. I could see Slioch to the south and I don’t think I missed any dramatic lighting there. I made the right choice. With my dinner finished, I returned to the car only to notice a puddle collecting underneath, a slow drip falling from between the wheels. It wasn’t oil, it seemed like water. I hope it wasn’t the radiator, best case scenario was it was just the air conditioning. I had it on all day.

I was far from home, so I thought I would just go on to my sleeping spot for the night and see how the car was in the morning.

Gairloch Chip Shop

On a rather stressful car journey, I did spot a white tailed eagle before Poolewe, but it was gone before I had a chance to stop. I thought I should crack on anyway. It wasn’t too long before I had reached Little Gruidard where there is a quiet little beach and a parking place across the road.

I braved the midges briefly to inspect the drip, which seemed to have stopped. I then took a stroll on the beach in the fading light.

There was already a motorhome sharing the parking spot with me, and just as I was stretching out to go to sleep, a second turned up to park directly behind the car.

Never mind, I was tired and soon fast asleep.

Destination Ullapool and beyond

I woke to an overcast morning, grey sky, but went for a walk on the shore anyway. The tide had come in and gone out again, so it must have been recently that a deer had taken the same stroll as myself. I followed its tracks across the wet sand until it reached the drier sand of the dunes, where I too left the bay then returned to the car.

I checked for drips under the car. Nothing was seen, so I decided to continue north.

I rounded the coastal road and gained some height until I reached the viewing area with parking space above Little Loch Broom. There were a few vans that had spent the night there. I stopped to boil up a water for a coffee and a granola bar for breakfast. It was grey and drizzly. Patches of sunlight would sweep across the sea and up the loch before making landfall.

I took the road towards the head of the loch with the An Teallach chain of mountains to my right. I must admit, for peaks of such repute, they didn’t seem that impressive. I’d seen many a photograph adorning calendars and postcards, but from the roadside I wasn’t getting those epic vibes.

This changed however as I turned the head of the loch and caught glimpses of the peaks in my mirrors. A change of aspect revealed the network of ridges and summits that would be a challenging test that should wait for another day when I’m feeling more energetic and indeed, braver.

After passing through Dundonnel the road snaked through a pass with an absolutely massive rock wall to the left of the road. Just one  end of the giant slabs of bedrock that are thrust from the earth my massive geological forces in the past.

The road passed a small waterfall that I explored for a while then flattened out onto moorland surrounded by mountains.

I spotted a small ruined house in the distance. A car was already stopped in the lay-by so I decided to park behind. I felt the 4 wheel drive would be fine off the side of the tarmac. However, I felt the front left wheel drop and the rear of the car go up. This was not good. I gently revved the engine. The car was stuck. 2 diagonally opposite wheels of the ground. The car in front had not moved and since I blamed the driver in front for not moving forward I wasn’t bashful about asking for a push. Thankfully he obliged, and being a big man, he was able to put a bit of weight behind the car, allowing be to get traction and safely reverse back on to the road. He still didn’t move for me, so I quickly took some photos, then made off along the road once more, promising to take things easy with the car.

The road from here was easy. 2 carriageways and pretty straight, the road took me to the head of the Loch Broom Valley and the Corrieshalloch Gorge National Nature Reserve. There was a visitor carpark here, but decided to push on as it informed me that the bridge was currently closed for visitors.

As soon as I turned on to the main Inverness – Ullapool road and was joined by ferry traffic and things seemed very busy in comparison to the roads I had been on.

Fast traffic and manic overtaking was the norm on this stretch of road. Some impatient drivers who had just left the ferry I assume, drove on the wrong side of the road directly towards me before ducking back in-front of traffic on their side.

I made it in to Ulapool and parked in the large carpark. “No Overnight Parking” the signs refrained. It was a nice day, so I decided to explore the town. It was larger than I expected it to be. I don’t know why I thought it would be smaller but it seemed like an oasis of urbanisation in a wild corner of Scotland.

Ullapool Trawler

I went down to the pier. The ferry had left, but the town was busy with visitors. I wondered if I’d be able to get lunch in town, but the pubs and restaurants were full and i didn’t fancy waiting too long. I went back to the car and consumed the 2 sandwiches I’d accumulated since beginning my journey. I also took advantage of the strong 4G signal and downloaded some podcasts for later.

Exploring Assynt

I decided to set off after my lunch for the town of Lochinver then to visit Achmelvich beach. I didn’t know why to expect, but I was looking forward to seeing the mountains of Stac Pollaidh and Suilven. I went north and the road curved round onto the sea at Ardmair with vast mountain walls flanked the coast. This is a geologically significant area, and the surrounding peaks made it obvious why.

After a stretch on good road, I took a left  at Drumrunie. I could make out the shape of Stac Pollaigh framed by subtler, though larger mountains on either side. I was now on single track which was made all the more difficult by having to crane my neck, always looking up and out at this amazing landscape. I stopped briefly to get out of the car and get a shot of this landscape. It was blustery and the cloud was lowering. I jumped back in the car and continued towards Stac Pollaidh.

Stac Polaidh

The weather didn’t know what it was doing, and by the time I pulled in to the small car park at the foot of the mountain, the sun was trying to break through the cloud.

I listened to folk as they filtered back to their cars, having made the climb. It didn’t sound to difficult. A couple of hours up clear paths the castellated summit. I chickened out. If I wasn’t on my own, I could have been persuaded. The mysterious summit looked fascinating. Limestone outcrops that have been dissolved by rain to what looks like a set of gnarled teeth along the crest.

I drove on, the single track seemed to be getting tighter and gained some height as it turned back on itself. After the summit, the road dropped down with stunning view towards the Assynt hills. Sadly though, the tops were hidden in the lowering cloud. These views were part of the reason I had come on this road trip. However I’d have to come back. Maybe late autumn when there are less tourists.

I followed the road towards Lochinver. A tiring drive on a tight winding road, but  it did have jaw dropping views.

On such tight roads, I was surprised at the number of wide motor homes that I met along the way. Often I found myself reversing quite some way despite them sitting next to passing places.

Eventually I found myself entering Lochinver. Quite a surprise, it’s a commercial fishing port. The second largest in Scotland! Apparently frequented mostly by Spanish and French fishermen.

The beauty of the countryside on the approach to Lochinver, contrasted with the stark industrial buildings in this remote little town. It didn’t feel like a place to explore, although the one thing going for it was a stunning view of the summit of Suilven which was now free from cloud.

Next destination on the cards was Achmelvich bay. I don’t know why, but I’d heard it mentioned many times. I was missing a nice beach walk since I had not visited the Hebrides this year.

It was a short trip to Achmelvich. The dunes are host to a campsite and visitors car park. Despite it being overcast and brisk. There were plenty of visitors. Some were even taking to the water. It was cold, but the bay had a beautiful aqua marine hue from the cliffs above.

I traversed around a headland to the north and visited a quieter part of the bay. Some idiots were whacking golf balls off the cliff tops in to the sea. I did consider asking them (sarcastically) how they planned to retrieve their balls that were polluting this pristine looking water. I didn’t, and I walked past them muttering to myself.

I followed the steps down to the little bay. I did however keep in the lee of some large rocks as I’d noticed an individual basking in their self-imposed isolation. I sympathised with them, so didn’t want to disturb them.

The rocks here were fascinating. Jutting from the sand. The red and black marbled patterns were shattered in places and provided a beautiful backdrop to the beach.

I returned to the car across some dunes. It was a busy little spot. Plenty of visitors were making the most of the white sand and clear water, despite the temperature being less than summery.


Loch Assynt

This was now the furthest north I have been and was looking for more sites to capture. I took the faster road towards Loch Assynt where the mountain ridges took on a scale which belied their actual height. The ridge associated with Qoigach was stunning, epic, and a whole bunch of other superlatives. Unfortunately I was on the move and the light was hazy and muddy. It was getting late. I took some shots out of the car window just as a keepsake.

It was a much better road than the one to Lochinver. It took me down Loch Assynt itself. Looking gloomy in the gloaming, again I took some snaps. No bangers I’m afraid, but great to see the place at last.

Further on as I gawped at the scenery I was driving through, a familiar shape appeared on an island in the Loch. The Jenga pile of stone that is Ardvreck Castle, now the husk of an ancient stronghold that is ubiquitous on Instagram at the time of writing. I tried to capture some original angles, but a monument this popular has already been done from all sides.

Ardvreck Castle

It was time to think about where I’d be sleeping for the night. It was all a bit exposed so I plumped for the gorge carpark there I’d passed just before Ullapool. I stopped in the town briefly once more and ate the meatballs I’d purchased the day before, “Can be eaten hot OR cold!” The packaging exclaimed.

The wind was whipping up as I had walked the seafront after my meal. I then set off to find my parking spot as darkness fell. Once there, I made myself comfortable and fell asleep to the ramblings of a podcast, having feasted on nuts and snacks beforehand.

Rogie falls on the Inverness Road

I set off next morning in darkness, the wind buffeting the car slightly. It was grim looking, but in a good way. The white caps on Lochcarnoch whipped off the waves and commuting car’s headlights whizzed passed me on their way to Ullapool.

As the gloom turned to morning light, more spectacular and unexpected walls of rock ascended before me. I was approaching the neighbourhood of Beinn Wyviss. This mountain had in the past been proposed to host Scotland’s sixth ski area. Those plans never materialised.

The mountains grew thicker with trees and near Drumnadrochit, I happened upon pleasant looking carpark for an area of forestry called Rogie Falls. Some well made forest loops, one of which I took, followed the river. It was still early and quiet. The sun was peaking out and the glades let the brightness through, illuminating the deciduous leaves and side webs that hung between them. Red admiral butterflies lapped up the rising sap that oozed from the wrinkles in the tree bark. Peacock butterflies preferred to bask in the direct sunlight, showing off their iridescent spots.

I followed the bend in the river and the sound of the falls grew louder. A large foot bridge spanned the river, giving prime views upstream and over the falls themselves. The bridge bounced with each step. I let it settle to take some photos in the middle of the span. This would be interrupted as the growing number of visitors took their turn to make the crossing.

As it was growing busier, I made my way back to the car. Next stop, Loch Ness.

Peacock Butterfly Rogie Falls Rogie Falls suspension bridge

The Home Straight

I passed rolling fields as I passed Dumnadrochit, my plan was to visit Urquhart Castle, made famous in many photos claiming to have captured the Loch Ness Monster. However, I hadn’t counted on the Bank Holiday visitors, and it soon became apparent that the hoards of pedestrians were walking to the popular sight when I saw the “car-park full” signs at the entrance to the castle. “Never mind”  I thought to myself, “another time”. I continued towards Fort William which hadn’t avoided the crowds either. I grabbed a bight to eat and made a push down the A82, leaving the masses behind.

I must remember to check public holidays next time!