Friday, August 15, 2014

Fàilte gu Alba: the road to Eilean a' Cheò

Our fifth day in Scotland was, unsurprisingly, superb.  I mean, these were the Scottish Highlands!   This day was another long and beautiful drive, from Bonar Bridge (Drochaid a' Bhanna) in the northeast of Scotland, to the settlement of Torrin (Na Torrain) on the Isle of Skye (Eilean a' Cheò), the largest of the Inner Hebrides.  Barely 200km which, thanks to their beauty (and some really narrow roads!) took us a good 10 hours.  And this post might take that long to read, too.  Sorry!   

of black pudding, haggis and tattie scones

You'll remember I was raving about our hosts in my last post, right?  And if you follow this blog, you might know that, though I'm vegan most of the time, occasionally I'll fall for some specific dish or food if my curiosity beats my veganism.  Well, our hosts could cook really good.  So I decided that if I was ever going to try a full Scottish breakfast, it had to be there and then.  And you know what's funny?  They supported my decision!  I was a bit ashamed of telling them I wanted their very non-vegan breakfast for that morning, but after I explained why I wanted to, they were like "Well, that's very valid, it's all part of experimenting and experiencing things.  Very reasonable.  Good choice."   I was definitely among my people!  

So, what was breakfast like?  Porridge, with some salt, with brown granulated sugar, and some cream.  This I absolutely loved.   And some fresh cherries, strawberries and kiwi which, of course, was not traditionally Scottish, but it was not only good fruit but also pleasingly arranged on a platter.  Plus, get this - fruit compote with Scotch?  Pretty good on toast!  And then the special ones... Haggis, a savoury pudding made from sheep offal, onion, oatmeal, mutton fat, spices, salt, stock, and encased in the lamb's stomach.  And Black Pudding, a type of blood sausage made from pork blood and oatmeal.  And Tattie Scones, from potato, butter, salt and flour.  And bacon, and mushrooms, and tomatoes.   Very, very filling.   Very.  Funnily, my years of being vegan affect how I perceive flavours so, for example, the haggis tasted very, very "lamby" and the bacon very, very "bacony". But they were still good.  But I still loved my mushrooms and tomatoes more, LOL!

These people were amazing. Period.

While we had coffee after that very special breakfast, our hosts asked about our plans.   As usual, after hearing we were driving to the Isle of Skye, they made some suggestions, including not getting to Skye via a bridge, but via a ferry, which meant taking another, much more charming route that would also allow for a detour to see some local prehistoric ruins, called brochs.  Their suggestions the day before had been so good that we decided we should listen again, and go see these brochs and take a ferry to Skye.  We can't thank our hosts enough.


Our first stop had to be the city of Inverness (Inbhir Nis), the capital of the Highlands, just south of Bonar Bridge.   We should have visited this place on our way to Bonar Bridge, but we didn't have enough time then.  I have to say, it's quite a pleasant city!  We had a very short peek, walking around it's streets, by the river, around some squares... but that was plenty to give us a feel of the place.  I wish we had had time to spend a couple of nights here.   Ah, and one thing I loved - my first encounter with bilingual signage everywhere! Even MacDonald's had a sing in Scottish Gaelic!  Train stations, streets, and basically all public signs were both in English and Scottish Gaelic.  For me, that was simply super cool.   

After that short visit, it was time to veer westwards and cross from the North Sea to the North Atlantic.

Loch Ness

When I mentioned to friends that our route would take us via Loch Ness (Loch Nis), many were excited. Truth be told, this was the least exciting part of our drive!  It's hard to explain, but the lake's too big and the road around it too busy and too good.  It must be impressive under the right light but, for me, it lacked charm, especially compared to the countless lochs we had seen so far.  But we still stopped for a photo of Urquhart Castle (Caisteal na Sròine).  We tried taking photos of the Loch Ness Monster, but apparently the thing only shows when there are few people around, the light is bad, the cameras are poor, and there are no sceptic mindwaves emanating from someone in the group.

the road to Glenelg

After Loch Ness, things got consistently prettier and more beautiful.  Even the skies were cooperating and I found myself taking photos where the main subject was the clouds!  We left behind the madness and vastness surrounding Loch Ness, and entered the quietness of Loch Cluanie (Loch Cluanaidh) and Loch Shiel (Loch Seile).  We traversed majestic Glenshiel (Gleann Seile), a valley with deep green forests, brooks, winding mountain roads, old bridges...  This last, Glenshiel, was probably the most beautiful part of the trip (before Skye, that is!).

By then, the road was already pretty quiet, but then we took the detour our hosts at Bonar Bridge had told us about, one that kept going East instead of Northeast.  And that's how we entered Lochalsh (Loch Aillse).  need I keep saying how stunning this all was?  With the added bonus of some horses grazing.  It's one of those moments where you stand there, you look at these beautiful animals in the verdant valley and the picturesque mountains, and internally yell "Come on! this can't be that pretty! it's ridiculously pretty!!!".

the Brochs of Glenelg

Now, the reason for the detour was twofold.   First, it was so we could take a ferry to Skye.  But we were also meant to visit some Scottish prehistoric ruins called brochs.  The road to Glenelg (Glinn Eilg), where the brochs were, kept us wondering if we were on the right path. It was one of those roads where the woods around encroached on the road and the passing points were really, really tiny.   We were also worried that the super slow drive could make us arrive too late to catch the last ferry.  But the reward was huge.

We had never ever seen anything like this: a sort of roundhouse, with the top narrower than the bottom, made of stone, multistory, and with a double layered wall that allows air to flow.   Yeah, my description sucks.  Look at the photos, which include two of the best preserved brochs in Scotland, Dun Telve (Dùn Teilbh) and Dun Troddan (Dùn Trodan).  Oh, did I mention these are from the Iron Age?  That is, these structures are between 2000 and 3000 years old.  Unbelievable.

To make things better (even better!) there was a café called The Wagon Café nearby and, in such a hot and sunny weather, sitting in such a relaxing setting and having a cold drink was simply the best.

turntable ferries?

The brochs were not the only new thing we saw that day either!   When we finally made it to the Glenachulish ferry to go from Glenelg to Skye we saw the most curious of things - a turntable ferry!   It's a very basic idea, but what a great one it is!  The platform where the cars go can turn so, when everybody's finished driving unto the ferry (it can carry 4-6 cars), they turn the platform around so that, when the ferry reaches the other side, the cars are ready to disembark facing forward!  It was pretty neat.  And the scenery, with the Isle of Skye rising before you, was breathtaking.

the drive to Na Torain

In the following days we drove around the Isle of Skye (Eilean a' Cheò) quite a bit.  The road from Kylerhea (Caol Reatha), where the ferry arrives to, to the main road on Skye (where most people enter from, via a bridge further North), must be one of Skye's most scenic drives.  The road was a bit of a roller coaster, as you pass one of the highest peaks in the peninsula, Sgùrr na Coinnich.  But that ascent and descent were absolutely fabulous and, under the evening light, the colours of the plants, flowers and water were just too bright.  It's a road worth of a fantasy novel.

Our B&B was in the tiny town of Torrin (Na Torain), on the Strathaird Peninsula.  We were rushing a bit, because we were expected by 7pm (the owners had some "interesting" rules for checking in) but we couldn't resist one last quick stop... by a ruined church!   Cill Chriosd, or Christ's Church.  Really, couldn't we just get to our B&B without spotting fantastic stuff?  What was wrong with this country!  Too - much - to - see!  And this church, with it's Celtic crosses in the cemetery, a carpet of flowers inside (did I mention Scotland was teeming with tiny wild flowers?), roots growing here and there through walls... what a site!

But we finally reached our destination, a B&B with hosts that were pretty well meaning, for sure, but who somehow managed to come across as a bit rude, but with an unbeatable view of Blaven (Blà Bheinn) in the distance. 

a peek at a town, and sunsetty lakes

Well of course that couldn't be all, could it!  After checking in at our B&B, we had to hurry to the nearest "big" town for food, 'cause we hadn't eaten and there was absolutely nothing to eat (except grass!) at Torrin, so we rushed to Broadford (An t-Àth Leathann), a completely unremarkable place except for its pretty bay and a couple of places that still served food late ("late" to be read as 9:00pm).  Oh, and they also had haggis flavoured potato chips.  yes, haggis flavoured.  [WIDE EYED].

But the drive back to Torrin was the icing on the cake.  Strathaird may not be know as the most beautiful part of Skye, but that also means it's rather quiet, with less tourism.  And the road back to the B&B, with the sun setting, was a total delight - the loch past the church, Loch Cill Chriosd, reflected the mountains and clouds beautifully.  I felt really lucky to be able to simply stop and admire this in the quiet.

By the way, the roads were, like I mentioned, really narrow and basic and, obviously, we got a bit lost driving back to Torrin.  But hey, we ended up by beautiful Loch Lapin (through a road so rough even the previous roads seemed like highways!), and we easily found our way back to the B&B to rest and prepare to keep exploring beautiful Skye.  What an intense day, eh?

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