Thursday, November 19, 2015

Scotland: Part 1 - My heart's in the Highlands

Our first view of Glencoe from a distance

We arrived in Glasgow early Saturday morning after a comfortable overnight flight from Halifax and picked up our car at the airport. Our plan was to take all day to reach our first port of call, North Ballachulish, just a few kilometres from the Village of Glencoe.

En route, we stopped for a couple of hours in Luss, a picturesque village perched on the shores of Loch Lomond. After enjoying a delicious breakfast at the Village Rest, we took a short walk along the river that meandered around and through the village and stopped to observe folks prepping for a wedding in a local church. So far, so good. We were in high spirits as we climbed back into the car to head north.

The countryside near Luss

Preparing for a wedding in LussLoch Lomond

The next few hours were a good deal less relaxing as we negotiated the narrow winding roads along Loch Lomond and the Moor of Rannoch. Given that the roads were so narrow, the stone walls so unforgiving, and the buses and lorries so threatening, I was grateful we'd rented a tiny car. I'm sure my blood pressure was a few points higher by the time Glen Coe came into view.  Fortunately, the scenery made the journey totally worthwhile.

Glencoe mountains

From the moment we arrived, I was bewitched by the Glen, It's hard to put into words but I immediately sensed the spirit of the place - as if every drop of MacDonald and MacIntosh blood flowing through my veins responded to ancient music playing just beyond my hearing. In some primordial way, I was home.

Glencoe mountains

Happy to have arrived in Glencoe

Our studio in North Ballachulish was a wonderful base for the next five days - not least because the views were terrific, our rooms were clean and comfortable, and our hosts (both of whom were musicians) invited us to join them for a couple of traditional music jams at local pubs.

The view from our studio

We were blessed with excellent weather for much of our time in Glen Coe. Plenty of sunshine and mild temperatures made spending time outdoors a joy.

Our first full day day, we visited the Glencoe Massacre Monument before exploring the trails around Glencoe Lochan in the morning and Glen Righ in the afternoon. Unfortunately, we got a bit disoriented on the trails at Glen Righ so ended up walking 4 or 5 kilometres farther than we intended but it was no great hardship. We had plenty of time and the views were gorgeous. Needless to say we slept well that night.

The Pap of Glencoe from the Glencoe Lochan

Glencoe Lochan

On one of our first easy hikes.

A view from the Waterfall trail

The next day, we drove to Oban for a more laid-back day. After a fantastic lunch of steamed mussels and fish sandwiches on the pier, we toured the Oban Distillery, then hiked to the top of town to visit McCaig's Tower (aka McCaig's Folly). The Tower was commissioned by a wealthy banker to create employment for local stonemasons during the winter months. Though it seems a little out of place, it has the advantage of providing wonderful views over the harbour.


View of Oban harbour from McCaig's Tower


Oban harbour

We really liked Oban. It was friendly, attractive little place, well worth visiting again when we have more time. There were plenty of pleasant looking guesthouses with breathtaking views of the harbour.


En route back from Oban, we stopped to visit Dunstaffnage Castle. Now in ruins, the castle has a fascinating history. It was originally built by the MacDougalls, but the small graveyard adjacent to the ruined chapel is filled with Campbell headstones because they were the last inhabitants of the property.

Dunstaffnage Castle built on a massive rock formation

Views from Dunstaffnage Castle

Some history of the Castle

This photo of Husband gives some sense of the size of the massive rocks upon which the castle rests.

Luke at the base of Dunstaffnage Castle

As is so often the case, my eye was caught by light spilling through windows in the ancient stone walls.

Inside Dunstaffnage CastleInside Dunstaffnage Castle

On the third day, we tackled our most ambitious "walk" so far - a 4 km hike along a trail winding between two mountains into the Lost Valley (Coire Gabhail). It's considered an easy route compared with others in the area but, given we were still recovering from jetlag, we found the 335m climb along narrow, rocky paths challenging enough.

The weather was perfect - mild and sunny - and we had the trail and the valley almost entirely to ourselves. It's said the MacDonalds hid the cattle they "borrowed" in the valley so I found myself imagining what it must have been like to spend long dark nights huddled round fires built close to the base of the huge rocks that were left behind by the glaciers that created the valley.

The floor of the Lost Valley was littered with fantastic rocks

Another hiker savouring the spirit of the Highlands

After a picnic lunch and a short rest, we hiked out of the Valley. Husband took this photo on the return trip. If you look closely, you can just make out the road and a couple of trucks far below.

Hiking out of the Lost Valley. You can make out the road below if you look carefully.

We also stopped to take a few photos of the Three Sisters. Some day, I'd like to try hiking up the Pap of Glencoe.

Luke savouring the views in Glencoe

At the end of our first big hike!

We thought we might tackle a second hike after lunch but it was so warm and we were so weary, we opted for a pint on the deck of the Clachaig Inn instead. When I went inside to collect our drinks, I was amused to see this sign in the lobby. Given that my great grandmother was a MacDonald, it was a sentiment I could appreciate.

Clearly, this is still a MacDonald establishment

We spent most of our last day on the west coast aboard the Jacobite Steam Train (aka the Harry Potter train) travelling from Fort William to Mallaig and back. We enjoyed the trip, especially our lengthy conversation with an impressive young couple from Stirling, but I confess I'd have preferred to spend the day hiking. The weather was incredible! Fortunately, after a delicious lunch of fresh fish and local beer, we had an hour or so to explore the Mallaig waterfront before boarding the train for the return journey.

The Jacobite Steam Train (aka the Harry Potter train)

The view from Mallaig

A ferry departing Mallaig

I've not yet mentioned the sunsets in Ballachulish. Nearly every evening, we found ourselves back at the studio in time to take in the stunning sunsets while sipping a pre-dinner glass of wine. Needless to say I couldn't resist putting my camera to work.

Another sunset from our studio

A sunset view from our patio

Another beautiful N. Ballachulish sunset

On our last evening, we walked to Ballachulish Bridge to get better views of a last glorious sunset over Loch Linnhe, and found ourselves envying some kayakers we spotted returning from a paddle along its shores. Being on the water must have been magical.

Our last Ballachulish sunset

Our last Ballachulish sunset

Preparing to leave Ballachulish on our last morning, I realized I was leaving a piece of my heart behind. Or perhaps it's truer to say the Highlands had taken up residence in my heart. Whatever the case, it's a beautiful part of the world I'd very much like to visit again one day.

For more photos from our Highland adventures, you can check out this set on Flickr.  If all goes well, I'll be sharing more of our Scottish adventures in the weeks ahead.


  1. Beautiful pictures - takes me 'home'! My dad's favorite place was Oban - we went all the time just so he could stand by the water and stare at the boats :) Great memories!

    And, just so you know, I am a Campbell (my paternal grandmother, whom I am named after). Yes, we Campbells were a bad lot! And when I go north into the highlands, I never ever say I'm a Campbell!!! LOL

    1. You're a Campbell? Say it ain't so!! Actually, my massage therapist is as well and she's totally lovely too so I suppose you're not all bad. :-) I confess that I mentioned my MacDonald ancestors more than once while we were there. Thanks for taking time to drop by. Let's get together soon. I miss you, my friend.

  2. Not a Campbell. Love the photos!

  3. What a wonderful read Jan! Reading through your blog, it sounds like you had an amazing time in Scotland and your photos make me long to go there. Beautiful! I too have MacDonald in my blood, my grandmother was a MacDonald and her family came over from the Isle of Skye.