Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Scotland June 2015

I just love going to Scotland on holiday, yet there is more often than not one has to make a sacrifice in the weather. Why have I this enduring fondness for returning to the Highlands and Islands? One aspect was answered for me in an episode of the geographical TV series “Coast”, which described Scotland as the second most intricate coastline in the world after Norway, another favourite place of mine. There is a lot about Scotland that reminds me of home: the Gaelic language, areas of desolation, the ever changing weather, the hospitality, and a lot of quirkiness. But what’s familiar always has a twist, like the backwards fadas of the Scots Gaelic as opposed to the forward accents of Irish. The areas of wilderness are far greater in Scotland, there is a wealth of islands great and small to explore. There is a lot more travelling to be done there!

On this escapade my main focus was to see the Isle of Colonsay, an island about ten miles long, which I’d seen in a television documentary a good few years back. I knew it had a fairly large estate house and garden, a famous golden beach, and a smaller island of Oronsay to the south which is accessible at low tide and which features a monastery that predates Iona.

I took the Aer Lingus/Stobart flight from Dublin to Glasgow, and caught a Citylink Bus from Buchanan Bus Station to Oban, where my bed for the night was the Royal hotel. A fairly basic hotel, and I mightn’t want to stay here for more than a night. At least it has single rooms, staff are friendly, and breakfast is decent, and it is very central. Typical of a Scottish lower to mid- range hotel the décor featured tartan, which at least affirmed I was in Scotland.

The journey from Glasgow to Oban is a lovely one, going via some lovely Argyll countryside by way of Loch Lomond, Rest and Be Thankful, Inveraray, and Dalmally. Oban itself is a very likeable town, set in a bay with hills rising behind and dominated by the Colosseum-like structure of McCaig’s Tower, a folly built by a wealthy banker as a tribute to himself and his blood relatives. He died before completion, so it is only a shell of what it might be.

Oban claims to be the seafood capital of Scotland, and pertinent to this is the al fresco seafood bar which serves the freshest of produce at a reasonable cost, to be enjoyed at a long outdoor bench and table to be shared by fellow fish-lovers. Indeed there was another such alfresco outlet with outdoor tables and umbrellas. Several indoor restaurants specialise in seafood and there are two gourmet fish and chips shops where one can eat at tables or take away.

I had more than half a day to spare before my ferry to Colonsay, so I started out by taking a one hour boat trip to see the local seal colony. The seals had pups and they all seemed to blend in with the local rocks. We passed by a large fish farm which supplies salmon to a lot of supermarket stores in Britain. I remember doing this little boat trip during the 1980s when I spent a sunny week in Oban. It is a superb holiday base, with so many ferry trips available to other islands as well as bus routes and roads to so many interesting places.

I walked down the Corran Esplanade, the hotel-lined promenade which leads onto the road out to the nearest beach at Ganavan Sands, under two miles away. I dropped into the Oban Chocolate Shop and Café, a gorgeous place which was unfortunately packed full with customers. The chocolates are amongst the most delicious I’ve ever tasted.

In the evening I checked in for the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry to Colonsay. A requirement of the crossings is that you give your name, your next of kin and their phone number on a slip before you embark, and hand over the duplicate as you disembark. I guess it is to do with a problem with suicide or drunks falling overboard. On all ferry crossings the initial welcome aboard message by the Captain is in the Scottish Gaelic language. On board these modern Calmac ferries are excellent facilities, such as a good coffee shop, a restaurant serving decent food, and a comfortable observation room. On this very smooth 2 ½ crossing to Colonsay  the ferry was uncrowded and made for a most pleasant crossing. The scenery en route was delightful, with lovely views of the islands of Kerrera, Mull, Jura and Islay.

Arriving at Colonsay pier, I had just started the uphill walk towards the only hotel on the island when a local driver gave me a lift. At The Colonsay Hotel I was shown to my little square single room, named Port Lobh after one of the bays on the island. The un-shared bathroom was down the corridor. At 8.30pm I was just in time to enjoy a nice meal in the dining room, fish with a garden salad from Colonsay House Garden. The hotel has a typical small Scottish country house feel, with nice little spaces in which to get comfortable, such as the Log Room or the Library.

In the morning I took my first walk on Colonsay. Today my goal was to see the famous golden beach at Kiloran Bay, via the grounds of Colonsay House.  So I traipsed the hilly single track road which swung inland from the coastal “capital” village of Scalasaig. This settlement has a grocery / post office, a café, a tiny brewery and a book publisher / bookshop.

Through Scalasaig and beyond, the corncrake sounded his scratchy voice loud and clear. On the islands he is thankfully thriving and I am always glad to hear that distinct sound on my insular travels.

Along the way I encountered many sheep as they scarpered up the roadside rocks to avoid me. Using a fairly basic map I had printed out for myself I followed a track through the wooded outer gardens of Colonsay House. Unfortunately it wasn’t a Wednesday when the inner garden and tea room are open – I had not been careful enough to time my visit. Yet I got glimpses of this garden where part of my previous night’s dinner had been grown. The day was grey but mild and calm, making for nice walking conditions. Some of the pathways proved very muddy and full of animal droppings, not doing my shoes any good. The woodland was ablaze with colourful rhododendrons and dripping fuchsia, with carpets of green fernery and spikes of flourishing foxgloves.

I wandered past hidden cottages which serve as self-catering accommodation managed by the Colonsay Estate. The Colonsay Hotel serves as the administrative centre for the self-catering houses which can be found in several areas of the isle. The modestly proportioned Colonsay House came into view as I came across a crucial junction where I was to take the wrong turn. Instead of heading for the glorious golden beach I convinced myself the circular road to the west was the correct route to take.

Walking for what felt like miles, I passed a school, a quirky house with somewhat scary sculptured heads in the windows, a field with standing stones, a church, a graveyard., a little weather station, more self-catering cottages and a bicycle rental shop. I could see the ocean ahead, with a rocky bay pounded by waves. Where was my golden beach? Opening a gate, I made my way across private grassy land full of black Hebridean sheep and a mobile home, and ended up at the edge of a cliff. No sign of a beach anywhere, just a rocky, boulder strewn shore.

I retraced my steps back to my hotel, and it was only until my second and last evening on the island when I conceded to buy a proper ordnance survey map from the island bookshop that I realised I should have taken the first road out from Colonsay House and Gardens. It would have been so much shorter a journey into the bargain!

On my second day on the island I had plans to visit the neighbouring island of Oronsay, which has very fine monastic remains from Columba’s era, predating Iona. To reach Oronsay one has to time the tides with precision, as the island is reached across a very wide stretch of sand at low tide. I walked the couple of miles south to The Strand, where many cars had been parked by folk doing the inter-island walk. It was a brilliant sunny day and I set out across the fairly wet sands, following the tracks of cars, and people. A post office van passed me on its way back to Colonsay. After a while I stepped onto land in the wheel tracks of other vehicles, and other people followed me suit. I came to an abrupt stop by a house which was backing onto a steep hillside which forced me to re-trace my steps. A couple who followed in my footsteps suggested that maybe we take another ill-defined route through the grass.

Failing to find any trace of a monastery we found a charming wild spot overlooking the open sea. Having spent a while exploring various direction and coming to dead ends  I decided it was time to cross back over the sands before the tide beat me to it. The couple continued their explorations  to try and find the vanished ruins. On my way back to Scalasaig I took a diversionary path to a very pleasant remote area of the isle. The sun shone brightly and warmly for most of my day’s walking.
It was only back in Scalasaig after I conceded to purchase a proper Ordnance Survey map in the bookshop that I discovered for certain that a):- Yesterday I had taken the wrong road in error of the one to Kiloran Bay, and b):- Today I had never set foot on Oronsay, having followed the wrong route over the sand. I should have veered towards the right side of the sands. Instead I had stepped onto an isolated corner of Colonsay. My overall mistake was being too mean to make an online purchase of the map to study the routes in advance.

Next morning I took the Calmac ferry back to Oban where I stayed for the final three nights at the upmarket boutique-style Manor Hotel.  A small Georgian building with beautiful views of Oban from the rear garden, it has several very beautiful lounges with antique furniture and a fine dining room. Dinner was a lovely affair and I enjoyed the seafood grill with several kinds of fish cooked to perfection and beautifully presented with fondant potatoes and fennel. For desert I chose “Chocolate and Orange”, a delightful and delicate medley of miniature helpings of orange ice cream, chocolate brownie, caramelised orange wedge and chocolate fondant. Coffee and petits fours were served in the lounge. My room was modestly proportioned, with cosy décor and a supremely comfortable bed.

The plan for my first day back in Oban was a boat trip with Turas Mara to see the isles of Staffa and Lunga. Initially I took the first ferry of the day to Craignure on the Isle of Mull. After a 45 minute crossing I boarded the West Coast Motors bus to the very picturesque and colourful capital town of Tobermory which is set around a beautiful wooded hilly bay. At the marina, I stepped onto the sturdy little Turas Mara boat which set out past a beautiful four-sailed cruise ship over to the remote Ardnamurchan peninsula to pick up extra passengers. After that the boat sailed south to the small Isle of Staffa, world famous as the location of Fingal’s Cave, where Mendelssohn got the inspiration to compose his Hebrides Overture, from the sound the sea makes at the entrance to the huge cavern. We stopped for an hour on the island. The volcanic formations here are identical to those on the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

Leaving Staffa, the boat sailed for about 15 minutes to the wee Isle of Lunga, renowned for its puffin colony. At low tide it was quite a feat disembarking. A floating pontoon allowed us access to a wide beach of slippery boulders which we had to scramble over, sometimes on all fours, to gain access to the grassy area. Then it was up a steep hilly path to the puffins, which are incredibly tame. We were told that they like the human presence because we put off the approach of their predators. A two hour stop allowed us to lie down on the grass very close to the birds and capture countless photographic images. One of the puffins came up from the sea with a beak full of fish, such as I’d seen in wildlife photography, but the second I clicked my camera he was gone out of sight. Fortunately I captured many other delightful images of the birds.

Sailing back towards Tobermory our boat was followed by a delightful pod of playful dolphins. Back In Tobermory I really enjoyed sitting by the delightful harbour-front with picture postcard buildings reflecting in the water. I got the Tobermory Topper back to Craignure, for the Calmac sailing back to Oban.

Plans for my second day in Oban involved a walk around the nearby island of Kerrera.  A lovely twenty-five minute walk from the hotel brought me to the seven minute ferry crossing to Kerrera, which is about 7 kilometres long and two wide, but feels a hell of a lot larger once you start walking it. Near to the ferry slip[way is the island’s telephone box, and a single track road leads south by the east side of the island. It is a lush green place, with good farm land, with plenty of wild foxgloves. I passed Horseshoe Bay which has a wrecked boat lying onto the shore. A few cottages face onto the bay and a very friendly lady waved hello to me. A parrot sanctuary, which is not open to the public, is located here. Passing through a gate on the roadway, there was a fork in the road. In followed left down to a farm house in a hollow, and then climbed a grassy path left through sheep fields with a magnificent view of Gylen castle which is located on the south coast of the island. The weather was turning warmer by the minute ; it was a brilliant day for Scotland. I tried to take a short cut back to the main circular route of the island but I was frustratedby  boggy areas, hills, and every type of obstacle. In fact I was rather lost for a while and in miniature panic. Still the views over the castle and the southern isles was magnificent.

I managed eventually to retrace my steps and continued on the island s=circular route to the idyllic Tea Garden. A notice invited one to sit in either in the garden or the byre, should the weather be inclement. The heat of the day made me well thirsty and I ordered a coke, a cloudy lemonade, and “builder’s tea” as stated on the menu, plus soup and one of the delicious home-made cakes on offer. The island’s public toilet stood in a square shed, a “loo with a view” close by the tea garden. It sported a hanging basket of flowers.

Onwards I walked along a path which effectively became a stream of water. A horse box provided an honesty box for sale of island souvenirs. The coast had rocky escarpments beyond this point, and the path was very boggy in places. Numerous gates had to be opened and locked again.
I made my way down to rocky Slatrach Bay, where the low tide had exposed a nice sandy area. The sun was blazing hot, I needed a cool-down, so I made my way through a mucky sheep field to get a dip in the cold refreshing water. The sea was un-rippled as silk, and there was a lovely clear area of decent depth to swim in. There was not a soul for miles, and not a sound save for the bleating of  sheep.
From here I reckoned by my print-out map it was not so far to the ferry. Alas the journey seemed like miles and miles, and I even turned back at one point thinking I had taken the wrong route. It was a very hilly point on the island circuit, which made it seem longer, and eventually I found myself back at the ferry slip and onwards back to my hotel in Oban.

On the morning of my departure I made haste to get to the nearby train station in time for the 9am departure for Glasgow. It was going to be tight enough a connection for my flight to Dublin. On entering the station I was told “the train is off” and that a bus would be provided instead. Anyone who asked why the train was off was told “the driver didn’t bother turning up”, which was a complete” porky-pie” designed to wind up the customers. I checked the internet and found that a train travelling to Oban the day before had been hit by a landslide, which was now blocking the track. Thankfully nobody was injured. It reminded me of my last visit to Scotland when the road at Rest and Be Thankful was blocked by a landslide which was cleared just in time for my bus back to Glasgow.
Arriving in Glasgow city centre there was a massive traffic hold-up due to an Orange parade which was due to take place. Traffic had been diverted and I was let off the bus in a city that I was not familiar with. My next task was to get transport to the airport, and I had originally planned to get a bus, but this plan was now off. Finding a taxi was a difficult task in a city centre which had been cleared of traffic.

Having got to Glasgow Airport I was starving, as I had not enough time to eat breakfast. The airport was crazy with crowds and queues for food were impossible, given that the airport is ill-equipped in the catering department.

It was not until I arrived home in the evening that I could indulge my by then enormous appetite!

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