We’d been promising ourselves a trip to the West of Scotland for some time, once we’d decided broadly where we wanted to be we started to look for a suitable place to stay. The Mallaig area has no shortage of self catering establishments and although you wouldn’t call them cheap (what is nowadays) the area itself, at least from the pictures we’d seen, looked to offer just what we were looking for. Scenery, beaches, rugged coastlines and lots of opportunities for walking. We managed to find a one bedroom cottage which had been converted from a small farmworkers home, it was set in a courtyard about a half mile walk, through gorse covered dunes, to a beautiful white sandy beach, perfect for the dog and not too shabby for us.
When we take a holiday of this kind we generally self cater and eat out a couple of times if we find the right places, but this postcard isn’t really about food, its about the marvellous scenery and the fact that, if you want a quiet relaxing break, whether you have a dog or not, the West of Scotland has much to offer. Some of you may remember the 40 things to do when you’ve been married for 40 years. One of them was to photograph a sunset in the UK. I’d already got a decent one from the west coast of Canada and originally I’d intended to visit West Cumbria, but being in Scotland, in a roundabout way, saved me a journey. As with everything else on the west coast, when the light is right it can be spectacular (see above).
I’m not going to bore you all with a list of the things we did, some of them were truly memorable and others less so but that’s the nature of holidays, so highlights it is. The drive to Mallaig is quite long, even when you live just south of the Scottish border but I knew it would be. The majority is single carriageway too, which adds to the time. We stopped by Loch Lomond to eat a sandwich and water the dog but the weather wasn’t too good so we decided we’d save that particular area for another day. By the time we arrived at the cottage we’d decided that we’d get settled, have a little walk and stay in that evening with a bottle of Malbec and a cottage pie I’d made for that reason.
Sunday dawned a better day and we set out to recce the area, driving along the coast south to Arisaig firstly and then backtracking to Mallaig to check out the fish and chips at the Fishermen’s Mission and to have a look at the timetable for The Lord of the Isles steam train, which we had booked to take on the Thursday. The fish was great, fresh and white with light batter, the skinny chips less so, an American affectation too far in my opinion. Gulls are everywhere and seem to have a real fondness for the railway tracks, completely ignoring the hustle and bustle of trains and passengers. I don’t think it would pay to get too close. Pleased to report that there is ample free parking in Mallaig, surprising I know, given the Scots reputation for being careful.
Ferries leave the small harbour of Arisaig for the islands of Rhum, Muck and Eigg, collectively known as The Small Isles, we decided to visit Eigg and with decent weather on the Monday that’s what we did. If you like being on the ocean then I thoroughly recommend this trip, it takes about an hour and fifteen minutes, sailing past many small islands where kayakers can often be seen pitching up and seals bask when the sun is out. The Island itself is very pretty, the Islanders, at least the ones we saw sat outside the small shop getting pissed, less so. I don’t suppose there’s a great deal to do apart from service tourists and maybe a bit of fishing. Perhaps prospects for the Islanders will improve once we leave the EU. We walked to Massacre Cave, so called because of a massacre, funnily enough. The McLeods of Skye apparently killed 400 islanders in the cave in a “dispute”. I suppose its just as well it wasn’t anything more serious. The little café is okay, it serves a decent local IPA and has proper chips. The one sight that really caught my imagination was this boat (below). It had seen better days but I imagined it may have been used, at some time, as a packet ship or mail boat, traversing between the islands. I couldn’t find out anything more about it though, so I’ll stick with my imagination. Mrs. C isn’t the best of sailors, so she wasn’t too impressed when the skipper of the ferry decided to do a spot of impromptu whale hunting on the return journey, adding 45 minutes, but I enjoyed it, no whales though. Millie the dog has a good set of sea legs, which is just as well.
Tuesday saw us return to Arisaig and park the car before taking a long walk along the coast path with a view to visiting a remote cove for our picnic lunch. We’d prepared ourselves properly with plenty of water, hats, etc. as we knew it was going to be a hot day. The scenery was breath taking but we didn’t make it all the way to the cove. As we’re pretty new to the dog keeping game we hadn’t fully factored in how she’d cope with the weather. After a couple of miles her legs started to give out, she was far too warm, so we found a nice shady spot for our lunch, enjoyed the view and the peace and quiet for an hour before returning to the cottage and sitting in the small garden drinking wine and planning the trip to Konydart, which we’d pencilled in for Wednesday. A late evening walk on the beach, before returning to the same beach at 10.30 pm to photograph the sunset completed the day.
Wednesday dawned “dreich”, as they say in Scotland, but we made our way to Mallaig to catch the ferry to Knoydart. We had bought the tickets before noticing the sign advertising the most inaccessible pub in Britain, which informed us that it was closed every Wednesday. The ferry people were more than accommodating though, and allowed us to change our tickets for Friday. The weather worsened and we ended up buying some provisions in Mallaig and spending the rest of the day in the cottage, apart from the obligatory walk on the beach. Even when the weather is not so good the beaches are a special place to visit, the air is clear and, with no real ambient light, the views are magnificent.
I’d been looking forward to Thursdays adventure ever since we’d booked it. Into Fort William from Mallaig on the scheduled rattler, lunch and a couple of pints in a smashing little real ale pub called The Grog and Gruel and back to Mallaig on The Lord of the Isles. The G & G has a great selection of local Scottish beers and a quality hot dog & curly fries menu, very enjoyable if a little bit different. After lunch we wandered back through the town before taking our seats in a classic 60’s carriage for the pull back up the coast by steam train. Loved it. More beach walking, heading a little further along than we’d previously ventured, Millie came across a dehydrated seal carcass, very disconcerting and fascinating, at least for her, in equal measure.
Friday was to be, sadly, the last full day of our break but another highlight for me, if not for Mrs. C, as it meant a bit more time spent crossing an albeit shorter stretch of the North Atlantic. The Knoydart Peninsula is only accessible by boat, unless you want to walk the 18 miles from the nearest road or get special permission, rarely given, to attempt the drive across the moorland that rises above the small settlement of Inverie, by the harbour. A great place for walking, camping and quiet holidays, Knoydart is also home to The Old Forge, said to be Britains most remote pub, which has a reputation for serving great seafood and great beer to wash it down. We did the circular walk, along the loch side, up through the woods and back to the pub. A leisurely couple of hours. It must have been lunch time for the workmen too, we came across this parked up bulldozer by the side of the main track.
My mind was on my own lunch though, I’d been looking forward to eating some local seafood and I thought that this might well be my best chance of doing so. I wasn’t wrong, The Old Forge seafood platter isn’t something you’d eat every day, unless you lived in Inverie and were as rich as Croesus, but for a very special treat it takes some beating, if you like that sort of thing. Moules Mariniere, Hot and cold smoked salmon, Langoustines, scallops and a bowl of chips comes in at an eyewatering (for my tiny budget) of £40 but it was perfectly cooked and exactly what I expected it to be. Worth every penny, as a one off. We met some characters from Glasgow whilst waiting for the Western Isles ferry boat. They’d come to Knoydart, complete with cans of Tennents and numerous bottles of Buckfast, Smirnoff Ice and other such lubricants, from Glasgow, for a weekends camping. A bit like the Going Postal bash, but without the calming influence of several females of the species. I’d have liked to see the mess they were in come Sunday.
Special mention here for The Western Isles, a lovely boat, quick across the water and well skippered , it was a pleasure to travel on board her. Back to the cottage, stopping on the way to explore yet another white sandy beach, before one last quiet evening and a final walk on the beach nearest to us. All in all I’d recommend this area. It’s no good if you want to be in the pub or night club every night and I’d suggest that there’d be more days spent walking than sunbathing, given the vagaries of the weather; but, if you want great scenery, dog friendly beaches, good food and beer and different and unusual places to visit then the West of Scotland might be just your wee dram of malt.
© Colin Cross 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file