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Hop-it, an Unexpected Journey to Scotland...

Hop-it, an Unexpected Journey…

A Scottish Journey through the Highlands, Isle of Skye, Mull & Iona with Back-Roads Touring Company - review.

You need a holiday, they said. They were right, but were they just trying to get rid of a tired & possibly slightly grumpy, er, mature person, in the middle of a freak, British, June heatwave?

Anyway, never mind scorching English temperatures - the Med was worse, with 35 to 40 degrees, seemingly the norm. For someone who could get sunburned opening a brochure, where to go?  It was a dilemma.

Then, miraculously, the opportunity of a tour of the Scottish Highlands & Islands popped into my inbox. A quick check to confirm the cooler climes of Scotland & I was hooked & booked!

Many of us tend to neglect the UK when it comes to holidays & touring, I’ve long had the goal of a year’s sabbatical, to truly appreciate the cultural & historical treasures & glorious landscapes on our doorstep. Well, one of these days - but this was a start.    

My hosts were to be the Back-Roads Touring Company, specialists in small group tours & featuring ‘boutique’ hotels and, as their name suggests, avoiding busy motorways & main routes, to appreciate the roads less well travelled, if you’ll excuse the well-travelled cliché.  

The trip was to begin in Edinburgh at the Nira Caledonia Hotel, a member of the exclusive Small Luxury Hotels of the World & set in the serene calm of one of Edinburgh’s most upmarket streets. Some fellow travellers had overnighted in this beautiful property, in the exclusive New Town area (designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995). I opted instead for the excellent Macdonald Holyrood Hotel, half the price & within a short walk of some of Edinburgh’s key attractions, including the Royal Mile, the Scottish Parliament building, Holyrood Palace & Edinburgh Castle.

However many times you may have embarked on this type of trip, there’s always slight trepidation about prospective fellow guests & how everyone will get along. Eight o’clock on a quiet, bright & sunny Sunday morning and as people began to appear, the only sound was birdsong. A Red Admiral basked on the black, wrought-iron railings, its wings stirred by a gentle breeze. Resting, perhaps, after its own, rather more epic, journey from North Africa?

There was an Agatha Christie-type atmosphere as guests assembled & surreptitious mutual assessments were made. Eccentric millionaires? Absent-minded academics? Mysterious, glamorous widows? I couldn’t possibly comment, of course, except to say that any concerns were quickly dispelled, by charming & cultured Californians, as sunny as their state & a smart, wise-cracking, New Jersey couple, who instantly facilitated the introductions, with no ‘British reserve’ nonsense.

Louis, our genial driver & guide gave a brief overview of what to expect & the features of the small, new Mercedes coach. Then, our small group of 14, comprised of Americans, Canadians, Australians & a couple of Brits, were off on our Scottish adventure. Although most people had booked some time in Edinburgh either pre- or post-tour, Louis took the opportunity to drive past many places of interest as we left - here the birthplace of Alexander Bell, there the official residence of Madam Sturgeon, on the left the Scottish Parliament & now we’re passing the Queen’s home, when she’s in town - a small glimpse of the astonishing concentration of history in one city.

Day One. Edinburgh to St. Andrews, Glamis Castle & Glen Cova.

Leaving Edinburgh behind, we crossed over the Forth Road Bridge. Louis pointed out the new British Aircraft Carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which was preparing for departure the following day. Everyone was very interested & asking questions about her. I felt too sheepish to mention that we didn’t have any aircraft for her to carry, just yet. Our Company included a retired US Navy Officer, who was equally too polite to comment on this & only mentioned the proposed ‘loan’ of US F-35Bs some days later when embarrassingly, the press revealed that the ship’s IT system comprised the obsolete & vulnerable Windows XP!   

We drove through Dundee & time did not permit a stop, though I made a mental note that this historic city is definitely worth a return visit. Hugging the coast, we made brief stops at the small, ‘time-warp’ fishing villages of Crail & Pittenweem, unspoilt by modern development & the latter’s name evidence of the fascinating trading, cultural & family links with the Flemish. On to the University town of St. Andrews, famed for its world-famous golf & where Catherine Middleton found her Prince! A wander around the beautiful campus & an excellent lunch of fresh, local fish before our next visit to the iconic Glamis Castle, regarded by many as Scotland’s most beautiful castle & still the residence of the Earl of Strathmore & Kinghorne. This is the setting for Shakespeare's Macbeth (the great man is said to have visited & been inspired here). Also, Glamis was the beloved childhood home of the Queen Mother & Glamis Castle has borne witness to over 600 years of incredible history. Almost casually displayed is memorabilia including handwritten invitations to Royal Weddings & letters from a young ‘Lillibet’ (Her Majesty) to ‘Grandmama’, with touching, childish domestic details.

Next, through the Cairngorms National Park, to our rest for the night at the Hotel Glen Cova. Set in the glens of Angus. Wonderfully peaceful in a delightfully rural & quiet setting. Our welcome dinner would have satisfied any gourmet & defeated many diners in its quantity. The following morning, from our breakfast table, we were privileged to watch a brood of blue tits fledging amongst pink roses around the window.

Day 2 – Glen Cova to Culloden & Inverness.

From the County of Angus, up into the majesty & drama of the Grampian mountains. We made a brief stop at Reekie Linn, the most spectacular waterfall in the region (Reekie refers to the smoke, or mist, caused by the torrent). Caution is urged for the very short walk to it through woodland on the edge of a precipitous & dangerous gorge.  We travelled through ancient Braemar, once a stronghold of Mary, Queen of Scots. Our next visit in Speyside, the home of Malt Whisky, was the strangely sad & mournful, but fascinating, Culloden Battlefield. This is where, in 1746, Jacobite dreams of regaining the British throne for the House of Stuart, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, were brought to an end, in a catastrophic defeat. Some say this then sowed the seeds for the Highland Clearances & the Scottish diaspora, which has reverberations to this day.

A visit to the Clava Cairns, Balnuaran of Clava, to the east of Inverness, where a split standing-stone inspired the TV series, Outlander. Three Bronze Age, circular chamber tomb cairns align with the solstices & are regarded with great reverence & a sense of awe by some. Hence, my little joke suggestion that they could be a Mommy bearial (burial), Daddy bearial & Baby bearial, did not amuse everyone. Oops...

En route to Inverness, our base for the next couple of nights, we had a brief break at the lovely village of Tomintoul, the highest in the Highlands. Also, although we had a brief glimpse of Balmoral in the distance, that would have to be for another trip.

Day 3 – Inverness.  

After a packed & exciting start to the week, some free time to explore. We took the open-top bus, which gave a fascinating introduction to the small, quiet & ‘manageable’ city of Inverness, the only city in the Highlands. We visited the magnificent cathedral, with its remarkable sculptures & we admired the exquisite stained-glass windows, crafted by Hardman of Birmingham, the ‘City of a Thousand Trades’. Later, we walked up to Inverness Castle, which dominates the heart of Inverness city, overlooking the River Ness. Sadly, this is now a Court House & not open to the general public. Some characters waiting around the entrance did not seem to welcome the unwanted attention…

We stayed in the friendly, comfortable & welcoming Waterside Hotel, perfectly located on the riverside, as the name suggests & just a short walk from the various points of interest.   

Day 4 – Inverness to Loch Ness, Plockton & the Isle of Skye.   

As we were saying a farewell to Inverness, we stopped at Muirtown Locks, on the Caledonia Canal. Built by the genius engineer, Telford, this most northerly part of the canal, at Muirtown Basin, is now a great marina, sheltering many craft, from small pleasure boats to grand cruisers.

We journeyed alongside Loch Ness, all eyes straining for a glimpse of the answer to the local hoteliers’ prayers! Next, a most unusual stop for lunch: a delightful seafood restaurant set on a railway platform. This was the quirky Waterside at the Kyle of Lochalsh & it certainly lived up to its great reputation for superb, fresh local fish & shellfish, served in cosy & relaxed surroundings. We were served great plates of the finest fresh local produce, whilst looking out on the waters where our food was sourced.

On to the charming village of Plockton, where we bought an ice-cream dessert from the gift-shop, stocked with the handiwork of local artisans. Quaint, prettily-painted cottages surround this small harbour, just a few steps from the waterside. We chatted with a tanned & cheery local man, tending his small garden plot, at the water’s edge. He told us he was 80, though he looked 20 years younger. He said that he had everything he needed, with his little house, his garden & his boat – maybe a lesson for us all?

Our final destination for today was to be the Isle of Skye, where we would spend two nights at the excellent Hotel Eilean Iarmain, reposing in splendid isolation, with panoramic views over a gorgeous bay. Whilst strolling the local lanes, only the odd watchful dog disturbed the tranquillity.   

Day 5 – The Isle of Skye.  

Landscapes to stir the senses, history to fire the imagination & elusive & rare wildlife – treasures for any traveller. We gazed at the exposed geology of millions of years, where imprinted footsteps of dinosaurs have recently been found! We marvelled at the dizzying peaks of the Quiraing & the famous Kilt Rock, a sea cliff said to resemble the same, basalt columns forming the pleats & layers of coloured rock resembling the pattern. Don’t miss the dramatic Mealt Waterfall, cascading off the cliff for 60 metres to the Sound of Raasay beneath.

A simple sandwich lunch today in Portree, the capital. An attractive harbour town, with many attractions, including the Royal Hotel on the site of MacNab's Inn. This was the last meeting place of Flora MacDonald & Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1746, where he was sheltered, despite a £30,000 bounty on his head (around £3.5 million today!).

Later, a glimpse of another age of island life at the Skye Museum of Island Life. This museum preserves a township of thatched cottages as they would have been at the end of the 18th century. We also saw the proud memorials to Flora MacDonald & a later, celebrated son of Skye, Alexander McQueen.

A brief stop at the mournful ruins of Duntulm Castle, once the seat of the MacDonald clan, with its dramatic tales of wars, tragedy & revenge. We ended the afternoon with a whisky-tasting, from our hotel’s own distillery, together with a fascinating history of Scotch whisky-making. Small sips of varying quality & price ranges, but I had to confess that they all tasted much the same to my palate…

Day 6 – Isle of Skye to Fort William & the Isle of Mull.

A ferry back to the mainland & more glorious scenery en route to Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis. A change of scale, from the gigantic to the much smaller charms of Glenfillan village. This is where the doomed ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ had rallied his followers in 1745, in a suitably portentous setting on the beach, where a Memorial now stands. A climb up the hillside offers a view over the bay & of the spectacular ‘Harry Potter’ railway viaduct in the distance. We continue to loch-side Fort William & along the remote & undisturbed Ardnamurchan peninsula. A short ferry ride brings us to Fishnish on the Isle of Mull, then onwards to Tobermory (some may know it as the fictional Balamory, from the children’s stories). The harbour is lined by impossibly quaint, small buildings, all painted in pastel colours. This was to be our base for the next two nights, at the small & very comfortable Tobermory Hotel, with fascinating views directly over the harbour, which was just a few feet away. It was wonderful to watch the rising & falling tides, at dawn & dusk.

That night we opted for an al-fresco meal of delicious local fish & chips, much to the consternation of our fellow travelling Americans. We sat, enjoying our simple feast, on a harbour wall, attended by a sole, patient seagull.  ‘Come on, go native & eat like the locals’, I urged. ‘No, we’re going to find a restaurant for dinner, like Americans’, said the cautious US lady - oh dear!

Day 7 – Isle of Mull to the Isle of Iona & back again...

Many of the dream-like seascapes, with far-off islands shrouded in mist, reminded me of past holidays in Greece; well, this was to be a day of island-hopping – a great way to see the Hebrides.

We leave Mull’s small village of Fionnphort for our pilgrimage to the revered & mystical Iona.

The ferry docks near beautiful beaches, which would grace any exotic resort. Hardy local teenage girls braved the (surely) cold, clear blue waters to swim expertly, with an occasional casual & apparently nonchalant glance towards the young sailors.

A short walk leads to Iona Abbey & Nunnery. Founded in 563 by St Columba, it is one of the most ancient Christian religious centres in Western Europe. Here began the development of Christianity in  Scotland.

After a light lunch in the quayside café, we return to Mull & then on to Duart Castle, ancient seat & fortress home of the MacLean clan, perched on a coastal cliff. The castle is still inhabited by Sir Lachlan, the 28th chief of the clan, who presides over 600 years of incredible family history, but with a mounting & worrying repair & maintenance bill. Louis told us that on the previous Backroads visit, Sir Lachlan had conducted the tour himself!

When we returned to our hotel, we’re treated to an impromptu ceilidh, organised by two of our distinguished Canadian cousins (retired journalists), to celebrate a very special Canada Day - the 150th! Later, our final farewell dinner; bitter-sweet as it was the last with our group of new friends.

Day 8 – Isle of Mull to Stirling & Edinburgh.

A sea crossing back to the mainland, then on to historic Stirling with its precipitous and impressive hilltop castle. Scottish monarchs have ruled from here for 300 years & it must be one of the world’s most incredible buildings, in its scale & sweep of human history.

This stunning monument provides a suitably profound grand finale, on which to end our wonderful Backroads tour of Scotland.

A short drive back to Edinburgh, where some guests were staying on to experience more of this wonderful city. Louis kindly dropped us off at the city centre tram, from where we had a half-hour journey back to the airport & reality.

Summary.

A brilliant tour, which I would heartily recommend. Back-Roads Touring is a top-quality tour operator, delivering a first-class experience. The Scottish Journey tour encompasses the natural, cultural & historic wonders of Scotland, packing in most of the key sights & experiences any visitor could wish for. We enjoyed wonderful company, excellent ‘boutique’ hotels & first-class food & hospitality. The tour represents incredible value for money, creating priceless memories & friendships which will last a lifetime.

A special mention is due to our host & guide, Louis. With superb professionalism, he had exactly the right mix of charm, humour, friendliness, knowledge & expertise. Everything ran like clockwork & Louis attended to any minor concerns quietly & without fuss. Luggage was delivered to & from rooms, which was a blessing, in small hotels without lifts.

Thank you, Louis & Back-Roads for your terrific & professional hospitality - we hope to enjoy another Back-Roads tour very soon!     

 

  • 4th August 2017