Scotland: Out in the wild, wild Wester Ross
Mike Unwin: This Scottish wilderness lets you enjoy wildlife and pristine scenery in glorious solitude.
Saturday 23 July 2011
It is 9.30pm and Gino Bernadi, the proprieter of the Shieldaig Lodge, is crouched outside our cottage, smearing jam on the windowsill. The late evening light illuminates a halo of midges around his head as he sets to work.
"That should do the trick," he tells us, bustling back inside. "Just leave the light on, and there'll be one along in a minute." And with that, he disappears out the front, hurrying back to supervise dinner.
Just 20 minutes later, we are eyeballing a wild pine marten from point-blank range. This handsome little beast – midway between cat and ferret in size, and decked out in bushy tail, creamy bib and rufous coat – is renowned as a ruthless treetop predator of birds and squirrels. But right now it is engrossed in strawberry jam. So engrossed, in fact, that it ignores my daughter's nose pressed to the glass not six inches from its own.
An hour later, still buzzing, we stumble back down the dark lane to the lodge, batting away the midges. A cuckoo calls from the hillside – some birds this far north simply ignore the short summer nights – and from high overhead, like a distant bleating sheep, comes the enigmatic territorial "drumming" of a snipe. Suddenly, a young red deer stag appears on the track. We hush one another in stage whispers as he freezes – looking suitably noble – then bounds away across the heather.
We're on a family holiday in Wester Ross, exploring that rugged stretch of coast just south of Ullapool in the top left corner of Scotland. The beauty of this landscape needs no introduction, but what has taken me aback is the wildlife. The pine marten is the first I've ever seen, but it's just the latest in a series of Springwatch-quality moments that began on day one, when an osprey flew over the road as we drove from Inverness.
The Shieldaig Lodge, just south of Gairloch, is our last stop. And with its imposing Victorian contours tucked between wood, mountain, loch and bay, it has proved the perfect base for our adventures. Earlier, for instance, we trudged over the rocky burns and bog cotton of the Inverasdale Peninsula – just north of Gairloch – until we reached a suitable headland and flopped down for our pincic. As sandwiches were unwrapped, I raised my binoculars to watch gannets fishing offshore – their wings flashing washing-powder white as they wheeled and plummeted – and almost immediately glimpsed a sliver of gleaming grey back. A minke whale.
Frantic gesticulating and scattered biscuits followed, as I tried to point out one "slightly paler patch of sea" among many slightly paler patches of sea. But there was no need to panic: the next view, when it came, was 100 metres closer. Even my daughter – without binoculars – could see the shark-like dorsal fin as the long body slipped up and under, like a mini-submarine.
A whale! This was the stuff of expensive, foreign adventures. Yet here we were, on a British summer holiday, simply having a picnic. And we hadn't seen a soul since we left our car two hours earlier.
Throughout the week, picnics had an uncanny knack of producing the goods. Yesterday had seen another sweaty hike – this time following the Gruinard river inland towards the forbidding peaks of An Teallach. No sooner had we sat down to share out the cheese rolls than, on cue, a golden eagle had swept over the ridge in front.
Spotting eagles, as any Highlands enthusiast will tell you, takes both hard work and luck. They are seldom more than a speck drifting along a distant ridge and, even then, often turn out to be buzzards ("tourist eagles", as they are known locally). But this was the real deal, the hooked bill and piercing eye clearly visible as the great raptor clocked us and spiralled higher on fingered wings. It was hard not to feel chosen.
Of course, younger family members, at least, require more from a holiday than long hikes and packed lunches. Earlier in the week, while staying in the delightful Ardvreck Guesthouse near Ullapool, we had been inspired by the sight of fishing boats sailing out of Loch Broom and so had nipped down to the harbour for ice cream and an adventure. Soon we were buckling ourselves upright into the Centaur, a 12-seater RIB, and holding on tight as the small craft roared out to sea.
My eyes strained for a glimpse of fin as we slapped across the waves, skipper Brian Eadie having mentioned that basking sharks roamed these waters. No such leviathan appeared, but puffins whirred across our bows, and seals peered up from the rocks as we nosed into sea caves and banked around the secret bays of the Summer Isles. Cruising back into harbour, we could just make out the Ardvreck up on the hillside – and, high above, a soaring sea eagle, its white tail and massive kitchen-table silhouette etched in evening sunlight against the storm cloud behind.
When the skies looked less threatening, we made for the beaches. Here, we were spoilt for choice: one idyllic bay after another offering the dream combo of soft sand, enticing rock pools, picnic-perfect dunes and clear – if bracing – waters. But none topped those at Red Point, where the single-track road south of Gairloch winds to an end, with the Torridons looming behind and the Outer Hebrides painted in pastels along the horizon. In one long afternoon of glorious sunshine, just four other families came and went. Meanwhile, we flung Frisbees in the surf, amassed our collection of tiny cowries and built our sandcastle city late into the evening – until the tide returned to do its worst.
The beach was also a birdwatcher's delight: clockwork sanderlings scuttled along the shoreline, dapper eider ducks bobbed beyond the breakers, and great skuas strafed the dunes on menacing wings. Even more exciting was the trail of otter prints that followed a trickling, gorse-lined burn between the dunes: if we could only see their author.
Admittedly, beach weather is not guaranteed up here – which seems to be the main deterrent to many who struggle to reconcile "Scotland" with "summer holiday". Fine, I reckoned. Let them head for the Med. They'll never know the magic of having a huge beach all to yourself; days so long that you can shelve Plan A in the morning rain and still resurrect it in the evening sunshine; and how much more vivid a sunset is when you've earned it.
The wildlife, equally, cannot be guaranteed: the likes of whales, eagles and pine martens don't come laid on a plate (except, perhaps, when that plate is smeared with jam). But keep your eyes open as you tramp the hills and headlands, and something usually turns up – often when you least expect it.
Our last evening finds us enjoying a dose of local culture in the form of a ceilidh at Poolewe village hall. The community is out in force, and folk of all ages are stripping the willow to the energetic strains of fiddles and accordion. I step out for some fresh air and cross the road to look out over Loch Ewe. It is perfectly still outside, and I can hear the piping of oystercatchers from the shore and the more distant yodelling of black-throated divers.
Then, among the steady ripples lapping the tideline, I notice a more persistent movement. A round head pops up, whiskers glittering. Another soon follows, then both duck under again, tails flipping skyward, before re-surfacing further out in a tumbling embrace. Otters. It's a pure Ring of Bright Water moment. And it's all mine.
* Inverness is the gateway for Wester Ross. The city is served by rail from Edinburgh, Glasgow and London (08457 484950; nationalrail.co.uk). Air links are operated by FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com).
* Arnold Clark in Inverness (01463 236200; arnoldclarkrental.com); five days' rental from around £100.
* Ardvreck Guesthouse, near Ullapool IV26 2TH (01854 612028; ardvreckhouse.com). Doubles with breakfast from £76.
* Shieldaig Lodge, Badachro, Gairloch, Ross-Shire IV21 2AN (01445 741250; shieldaiglodge.com). Doubles from £80 B&B
* Seascape Safaris, Ullapool (01854 633708; seascape.co.uk). Boat trips cost £32 per adult.
* Wester Ross tourist information: surprise.visitscotland.com
* Walks and beaches in this article are detailed in Walking Wester Ross, by Mary Welsh and Christine Isherwood (Clan Books, 2003).
* The writer travelled as a guest of Visit Scotland (0845 22 55 121; visitscotland.com)
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