Friday, 14 June 2013

Week 4: Islay and Arran

Day 22 June 5th

Apologies to Ian and Julie the owners of our last campsite Sunnyside Touring site in Buncaimbe, Arisaig. Carol forgot to enter her review on the last blog - the score was 11/10! - Yes we think we have found our ideal site: perfect location, tip top facilities, a lovely small shop selling local produce and gifts,and within walking distance of a pub/restaurant. We either need to downgrade everyone else or award + marks to Ian and Julie.

Today is another travelling day so not much to report.

Set off to Oban mid am. Scenic drive following Loch Linnie on to Fort William where Ben Nevis dominates the view and still has snow on it's peaks. On any other day the view with loch, mountain and forests would knock your socks off but we've seen better up north and they are still in our memory. We reluctantly left Arisaig in hot sunshine so was disappointed to hit rain after Fort William which continued right until we arrived in Oban. 

The ferry from Oban with the sun trying to break through looked fantastic sailing country. We stop to let a hoard of cyclists on at Colonsay before arriving in Port Askaig, Islay at 7.40pm. We get a quick exit from the ferry as Carol has booked an opulent night at a top B&B and we need to rush to catch last sitting for dinner at the Bridgend Hotel.

Get to Skerrol House at 8 pm-ish -quick freshen up and change of clothes - on to bikes-peddled as fast as we could -managed to get there 8.30pm to find a table ready for us - phew! We order the "special order" crab souffle (allow 15 minute wait) in order to get that all-important beer down. Had a lovely meal in nice restaurant dining room surroundings and cycled back uphill all the way -Carol motored back and couldn't understand why Graham took so long!

Day 23 June 6th

The Country House B&B is delightful! Set in it's own grounds overlooking lovely countryside. Comfortable king size bedroom with ensuite bathroom with a bath! Carol enjoyed a long soak and the luxury of drying her hair with a proper hairdryer not an underpowered wall mounted one as found on most campsites. Graham doesn't understand what the fuss is - he never has any such problems! In fact on reflection the only thing different about the hotel is a bath otherwise we have the super kingsize bed/ensuite etc in Rex .-umm food for thought.

After a superb breakfast we set off for Lake Gruinart -a RSPB reserve in the north of Islay.
The weather is a 22C glorious warm sunshine. Graham was hoping for some serious birding so was disappointed to discover that most birds that inhabit the lake area prefer to stay away when it is so hot! His ambition of seeing Eagles have been seriously thwarted. We took a leisurely walk through a woodland trail where lots of wild flowers were in bloom: bluebells, primroses, celandines, anemones, cow parsley and lots of other white, pink and blue flowers we don't know the name of (where is that botany book). We also sat in a Hide whilst Graham looked wistfully at the practically bird-less lake.

After a rather birdless visit we decided to head to a beach for lunch. It didn't look far. Now, the best way to travel around Islay (pronounced "eye-la" BTW) is by bike: the road are abs-o-lut-ely terrible. Poor Rex creaks and groans over every pothole. How can this be? A hotel on Islay costs more than inner city London - no, really, it did!) They are are full, as are the restaurants. There are a lot of visitors eating and staying on the island and paying a lot of money - where is it all going? Our next door van-ners - Norman and Yvonne- think the roads are even worse than Poland.

We took the single track potholed road up to Sanaigmore west of Loch Gruinart. We parked up near to a rather poignant memorial commemorating 241 Irish emigrants fleeing the potato famine in 1847 who were drowned off the coast when their ship heading for Canada sunk. The beach was another millionaires isolated beach for most of our visit. Graham saw more birds on this than at the reserve.

Just oystercatchers for company on this beach.

We then arrived at our Campsite in Port Charlotte (named by its founder Walter Frederick Campbell in 1828 after his mother). Port Charlotte is generally agreed to be Islay's prettiest village and it certainly appears that way-whitewashed rows of pretty cottages overlooking the bay.

We are staying at a friendly community run site which also serves the people of Port Charlotte with a cafe, play-park and football pitch. We use the footie changing rooms as the showers. To get to the showers you cross the footie pitch and I can't resist lining up to take a penalty in front of an open goal - how do these footballers miss? It is no distance at all! (Graham)

Our pitch again has great views across the bay -with the paps of Jura clearly visible to the west and Northern Ireland to the South-East. (The two breast-looking hills in the distance are the paps)

Day 24, June 7th

Another cracking day and Carol wants to see the "singing sands" (Machir beach). Graham has now refused to drive Rex on anything but "the main road", on which the remote beach is not. The tourist cartoon map shows a road leading straight from our campsite to near the beach, and shows horse riders from the end of the road to the beach which we take to be a bridle path. We decide to cycle the 4 miles to the end of the road and then walk to the beach from there.

The start of the walk. Our target beach is the next one to the right - or so we thought.

We walked up cliffs and down cliffs, through peat bogs and climbed over several gates as there did not appear to be a defined track. After 1.5 hours with nothing but feral goats for company we reached an impassible gorge- the famous sands were tantalisingly seen just around the next bay! We gave up and stopped to have lunch before we admitted defeat and turned back. Ah well, at least we had seen the beach if not actually reached it.

Our company for the duration.

Wait a minute - what's that on the hill overlooking us? - a couple walking on a defined path!
We scrambled up the hill, over another gate and emerged near to the surprised couple. Yes they have followed the easy path from the farm a few yards from where we set off! We followed the defined path for a few yards and emerged on to Machir beach - ah-ha, at last!

We relaxed on the beach for a while (fell asleep actually - funny how Graham has learned to power-nap now he's stopped work and doesn't need to, or maybe it's just his age.)

We took the easy track back and were back to a farm and the bikes in 40 minutes - couldn't believe how easy it was. Along the route Carol cooed and cooed over the baby animals seen on route. The farmers here are incredibly tolerant towards walkers roaming all over their land and some actively promote it - all they ask is you follow the Scottish country code and keeps dogs on leads. There is a big emphasis on the balance of the environment on the islands. Farmers are compensated (for example) to delay a harvest if it means supporting wildlife.

A picturesque bike ride back to the site and a welcome drink at the end of it!

We decided to end  the day by going into Port Charlotte to the hotel where we had a drink last night -the bar meals of local langoustine looked fab! -however we had not anticipated the demand and arrived to discover no tables left! There followed a silent walk back to the site and the reheating of a ready meal! Ah well -think of the money we saved!! 

Rating for Port Mor 9/10- great location,lovely community cafe/gift  shop with friendly staff. Changing rooms reminiscent of school changing rooms! 

Tomorrow we hope to visit The Oa.

Day 25 June 8th

We set off for the Oa late am -another leisurely start!
Our first port of call was the Bruichladdich distillery shop - just a few miles out of Port Charlotte. Carol had a G&T (and mine - Ed!) with gin distilled from there whilst we dined in Bridgend so it felt rude not to call in and buy a bottle.

We enjoyed a tasting -with ice, lime and tonic- very refreshing! in the shop. Charmed by the generous hostess behind the shop bar we also bought some small bottles of whisky for gifts and some lovely glasses. We spent some time talking to a couple from Vancouver, Canada, who were on a cycling tour for 3 weeks. 

We then continued on to Bowmore but did not visit the distillery. Bowmore appeared a lovely spot with picturesque cottages. small shops and a small harbour. And then progressed along the single track road (poor Rex) on to the Oa (pronounced "O") -which is is a nub of land south west of Port Ellen. There is a RSPB reserve and a famous monument "The American Monument" erected by the American National Red Cross in memory of those who died in 2 naval disasters in 1918. One ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and another boat was shipwrecked in the same year. Several hundred lost their lives. The monument is ginormous in the shape of a lighthouse. Inscribed "On Fame's eternal camping ground,their silent tents are spread, while glory keeps with solemn round,the bivouac of the dead".

We parked in the car park just before a farm -presume for the RSPB reserve. We then walked up to the monument and then followed a circular trail around the reserve. The weather was "scorchio" and the sea was again a millpond, we hope this shot captures the stillness. Several groups of Gannets flying in perfect V formation inches above the sea, going NE was a great sight (not in pic).

We had intended to stay the night at a farm site in nearby Kintra but on speaking to another couple who had spent the night wild camping in the carpark we decided to do the same. Graham would then get more time to try to spot the elusive golden eagle!

By early evening we were joined by another campervan so the 3 of us settled down for the night. No eagle but a massive sub surfaced for an hour or so early in the evening. Of the 3 couples staying the night in their respective vans , the men were all called-Graham! -spooky.

Day 26: June 9th

Today we are heading over to Arran. We travelled to Port Ellen ( named after Walter Frederick Campbell's wife in 1821! )  mid-am and arrived in good time.

We took a stroll along the seafront to kill time. The place was littered with young people clearly nursing hangovers and looking sleep deprived-some still clutching remnant boxes of beer. Yesterday was the annual Islay Beach Rugby Tournament-followed by evening celebrations. The remnants of beer tents, campsites, food stalls etc were being cleared away. This clearly was a serious event - the board with the knock-out round scores was still in place. There were 32 teams from all over Scotland, even teams from Royal Navy bases and as far away as Moffat. However we could not work out who won, and neither could the returning supporters in the ferry. Think we may have a lively ferry crossing to come!

The logo was "Eat Sand".

Actually the rugby crowd on board were no trouble at all! A quick poll concludes that a tinnie of Tennants is the beer of choice for the morning after.

We arrived in Kennacraig on the top of the Kintyre peninsula, first off the boat with about 20 cars behind us. Graham guessed the way at the T-junction because the "sat nav" wasn't quite ready and is not at her best under pressure.  We ambled the 5 miles across to catch the ferry in Claonaig to take us to Lochranza in north Arran. This is just a lovely drive through picturesque green countryside and tropical plants. It would be great to bike. 

The 4 mile crossing was another sunny, calm small ferry affair. Just lovely. I hope this shows how calm the water was.

Lochranza appeared a charming place with beautiful cottages overlooking the sea, a ruined castle and a distillery.  
On fair Lochranza streamed the early day,
Thin wreaths of cottage smoke are upward curl'd
From the lone hamlet,which her inland bay
And circling mountains sever from the world
( the Lord of the Isles - Sir Walter Scott)

Our campsite is just along from the distillery, overlooking a golf course in a lovely countryside setting. As we drove in to the site we were surprised to see a stag just sitting alongside one of the campervans! -apparently the site is visited by deer daily -they rut on the golf course and return to rear their young. The campsite is their territory -they tolerate their camping visitors!

As Graham was filling Rex up with water a couple in a nearby caravan called me over for a glass of wine. They introduced themselves - Mike and Jackie from Swanland, East Yorkshire (a few miles from our home town of Beverley).

Graham came over after hooking up Rex and recognised Mike Beadle from the old rallying club. Mike was one of the top caravan rally drivers in the UK. Yes, this is rally driving but towing a caravan. One mistake and you sweep the remaining bits of plastic up with a brush. One beer led to another and we stayed on for several more drinks and joined them for a BBQ! - such generosity! 

As we ate we were joined by a handsome stag who was partial to a bit of salad.

It was also our first encounter with the famous scottish midges and eventually it got too much. Now you wouldn't expect a top caravan rally driver to tow a little caravan would you? No. We completed our evening in their big, double wheeled, posh caravan. Great evening - thanks Jackie and Mike. There may be sore heads tomorrow.

Day 27 June 10th

Today started rather misty, cool, windy, and hungover.
We decided to ignore Mike's comments regarding the steepness of the hills and cycled to Corrie, the prettiest village on Arran. After a couple of miles of a constant steady climb and one light on the battery already out, we (Graham) were starting to regret our decision! They say that Arran encapsulates all of Scotland in miniature: In the north, the highlands; in the south, the prosperous lowlands with its victorian resorts. Well, I've just cycled up Ben Nevis... against the wind! We meet a couple walking a tandem bike up the other side and they encouraged us to continue as it was all "relatively" flat from thereon.

Corrie was indeed pretty with a small gift shop where Carol got her book on wild flowers (better late than never!) and a pub which we ignored - we'd seen what hair of the dog does on the ferry.

Interesting sculptures on the seashore in Corrie. 

We had lunch in a sweet tea room attached to Corrie Golf club - which also appeared sweet! With legs braced for the other side of the mountain to cycle up we reckoned there was still capacity left for a walk up Glen Sannox. No eagle sadly but we didn't leave empty handed as the fauna and variety of trees made the trip worthwhile. The water in the babbling brook tasted better than out of the tap.

Then onwards and upwards literally again for a couple of miles (Newtons law: each upward has an equal and opposite slope on the other side), before a great freewheel back to Lochranza. We stopped by the distillery shop and purchased yet more whisky related gifts - well we are keen to support the local economy!

Then back to the campsite where we saw a "do not feed the deer sign, as it makes them aggressive" - oops!

Again the midges arrived in strength and we retreated in to Rex and battened down the hatches for dinner. 

Rating for Lochranza site -9/10. A fabulous setting with resident deer! Good facilities-unfortunately the nearest shop is 7 miles away.

Tomorrow we head off to Kildonan in the south. 

Day 28 June 11th

Oh dear the weather has turned! -woke today to rain and mist. We had a leisurely breakfast, packed up and set off for South Arran - 11.45am - probably our latest yet!

Rain all day calls for a stately home visit and luckily Arran has one: Brodick Castle. Graham had a big grin on his face when he learned that our NT membership extends to Scottish NT properties too. Ha ha. We are £24 up already.

As the weather was a little improved - light drizzle- we walked around the gardens-a mix of formal walled gardens and wooded informal garden with lots of impressive old trees and many rhododendrons, azaleas and other colourful plants. 

In the heart of the wooded area was bavarian style summerhouse lined entirely with pine cones collected from the estate, this was built by the 11th duke to make his wife Princess Marie of Baden feel at home.

Graham was more impressed with the ice house -where ice brought over from Scandinavia and North America was stored to make a freezer like environment. The house even had a little jetty where the ice was landed. Imagine the logistics!

Brodick Castle was used as a shooting lodge for a succession of Dukes of Hamilton and (sadly) has a total of 87 stag heads in the entrance halls. In fact the Hamiltons owned ALL of Arran at one time and the last Duke (12th) was a gambler (aren't they all!) who loved racing horses who ran up a debt mountain for his only daughter Mary to deal with. On Mary's death in 1957 the castle was gifted to Scottish NT together with all its contents  in lieu of death duties.  Most of the castle was built on to and renovated in the 19th century although it has been a castle since the 14th century. The rooms opened to the public are decorated and displayed as it would have looked at the height of it's use in the 19th century-what a life! We thoroughly enjoyed our tour of the house -enhanced by the friendly enthusiastic guides seen in all the rooms. The tour ended in the kitchen where we reflected on the lives of the service staff working to aid the owner and his guests' lifestyle. (tut tut! -we will make no further comment!)

Our first impressions of Kildonan was not too favourable - admittedly we did arrive in rain!
We walked over to the Kildonan Hotel next to the site -our mental picture of a wood panelled traditional scottish hotel with roaring fires quashed as we entered the rather well worn slightly tatty looking building -we booked a table for dinner but with no high hopes of a gourmet feast -we may be proved wrong-but I doubt it!

Dinner update! - we enjoyed our meal - the dining room was quirky, a large conservatory like extension with views over the sea to the lighthouse on Pladda and Ailsa Craig beyond. The restaurant
was reminiscent of rural italian restaurants we visited in the 90's -full of random objects - a plaster bust of a pharoah, paintings and other ornaments -just no tv in the corner! The waitresses were chatty and friendly, the food quite acceptable. Carol had some local mussels and Graham the biggest scallops we have ever seen! There were 8 covers; a french couple, a couple on business (we think as they asked for the drinks to be paid separately), an eastern european couple and us.

Day 29 June 12th

Non-stop rain all night and not much better in the morning. There is only one thing to do on a rainy last day - hit the shops. So it's off to the big city: Brodick. We examine the bus time-tables. The one on the bus stop says 13:57 and the one in the campsite says 12:52. We missed the 10:00 so decide to see if the 12:52 turns up. A chap from the hotel wanders up and says the bus goes at 1pm, so they're both wrong. He turns out to be Portuguese and is training in hospitality at the hotel. He tried Spain and Portugal but applied here and got the training job - we couldn't work out whether it was because of local high un-employment or because he fancied Scotland.

Most of the shops in Brodick are tat( Graham) designer homeware(Carol), but there is a cluster of artisan shops/cottage factories a mile out, on the way to the castle so we walked there and Carol stocked up on beer, chocolates and aromatics as gifts - job done.

The weather improved as we waited for our return bus and we enjoyed views over the bay to Brodick Castle and Goatfell. So we spent a pleasant sunny evening on our last evening in Kildonan. Stange - but no midges at all. Same island but on the coast.

Views from the campsite.

We retire early for two reasons; (i) we have to be up early in the morning and (ii), the Apprentice is on. Tonight they are trying to sell accessories at the NEC caravan and motorhome show (which we went to in October). Now, caravanners are, shall we say, careful with money, and by and large, old and a gruff lot so this could test their self professed "selling" abilities.

Just in case the birders think I've forgotten them, Kildonan was pretty good for birds, but nothing too exotic. We saw: Oystercatchers (they are EVERYWHERE), gannets, terns, gulls, rock pipits, pied wagtails, ringed plovers, turnstones, shelducks, eider ducks, shags, cormorants, swallows as well as the usual garden varieties.  

Rating for Sealshore campsite 7/10. We were a little disappointed with  location -although on a beach -the beach was not the most attractive covered in vast quantities of pungent seaweed, flies and rocks. We have been spoilt by our experience of beaches on the east/west mainland coasts and the western isles! The hinted at seals did not materialise. Facilities basic but clean.

Tomorrow back on the ferry to Ardrossan and onward towards home -we're not sure where we will overnight stop at present.  

All good things must come to an end.....back to the french lessons. Umm-where do you think we may go next?


Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Week 3: The Western Isles

Day 14th 28th May

OK, so it's technically still week 2 by one day but if feels like a new chapter in our journey as we ferry across from Ullapool to Stornaway and the Outer Hebrides. We managed to arrive at Ullapool in time and top up with diesel before boarding - at an eye-popping £1.50/litre. Filling the tank at that rate is equivalent to an extra bottle of wine, so imagine our shock at seeing diesel at a respectable £1.41/litre on our arrival in Stornaway! (ever felt we've been had!)

Graham worked in Stornaway for a week over 20 years ago for the Health Board. The waterfront hotels are still there and look just as nice but the old hospital has been replaced with a bright, clean, modern version and the place has a confident feel to it. There is a Tesco just next to the ferry, convenient, but not as pretty as the waterfront hotels.  

We headed out of Stornaway on the only main road in Lewis towards Harris and made a detour to Calanais to see (according to Lewis tourist guide) Scotland's finest standing stones. They're situated in a loch side setting on the west coast of Lewis and there are lots of them. There is also a lovely visitor centre in a tasteful traditional looking building with a shop and cafe with stunning views of the loch. The area in north Lewis gives an air of humans taming a wild landscape, with lower lying land providing (once it has been worked) fertile grazing ground until the rock becomes impossible to deal with and is left wild. 

We continued along the main road and eventually entered Harris. What? Someone has definitely moved Harris - we are on the moon! Not only that: we are on the moon with water and sun. We even have to test the van's air conditioning.

Roads in Harris are mostly single track with passing places-then as we turned off on to the C road heading for Flodabay the fun begins - these are not wide roads. An almost white knuckle drive where sometimes passing places have sheer drops beside them leads us to our campsite for the next 2 nights. The scenery was so lunar like in appearance -we were not surprised to hear from our campsite owner that scenes were filmed here for the film 2001- A Space Odyssey. Rather bleak rock and bog areas interspaced with fresh and seawater lochs. The sun was shining and the landscape looked stunning but in rain and wind the picture would be grim.

Below shows the top of Rex at the campsite seen from the main road below. Sheep feed on this grass! As ever the best grass is nearest the road, and sometimes the road is nice and warm. Nice to lay down on, especially the black bits - away from the white lines.

Our site is a small affair with spaces for 3 vans.  We imagined we were to be by the loch shore but in reality we were high above the loch in wilderness or so it seemed!  We soon warmed to our pitch literally as the sun shone and our views were stunning. We decided to go for a walk to a nearby loch with an otter reported to be there -allegedly- we didn't see the otter - we discovered later we'd gone to the wrong loch! Carol managed to slip and fall into the wettest part of the bog on the way which provided a little drama!

If anyone is passing we can recommend this site (in the sun anyway), Tony the owner does sausages and bacon from his (ex) pigs, fresh eggs, smokes his own caught fish, bakes his own bread and whatever else you name it. As Tony used to be a chef it is good stuff.

This is the view from our van with Skye in the background. The water behind is a bay leading out to the Little Minch (The strait between Harris and Skye.)

Also stunning was the view of the Isle of Skye seen across the Little Minch with the flat-heads (on the left) and Cuillins to the right (out of picture) clearly visible with snow on the tops. As the sun went down the Isle of Skye appeared to turn pink in contrast to the bright blue of the sea - Carol took some photos -but could not replicate the true beauty seen by the eye! Another magical moment.

Day 15 29th May

Today had we had the luxury of a lie in and a lazy start to the day. The days are long up here in the North with the sun rising early and not setting until 10pm. Woke to brilliant sunshine - hurrah!
Peter and Valerie in the other campervan parked nearby were cooking (Tony's) bacon-the smell was fantastic. We resisted and ate our usual healthy fruit and yogurt and tried not to drool to much. Maybe some pig products tomorrow. They are touring Scotland the same as us but taking 2 months! -however they say they took a week to drive up from Kent so are taking it a little more leisurely than us.

We decided to go by Graham's favourite propulsion method (pedal power) today and cycled a few miles back along the road we had driven along yesterday stopping off to view the scenery along the way. Sun, Moon, Bikes: Life doesn't get much better than this, especially mid-week!

We took lunch at a lovely cafe/arty gallery called Skoon in a place called Geocrab (we thought it was a crab hatchery but it's actually a place name!) - amazing to find such a place in the middle of nowhere - a lovely building with views of a loch.

After a leisurely cycle back up hill (for those of us with an electric bike) and down we spent the rest of the day relaxing by Rex and enjoying the sun. We even had a van prepared cream tea -bliss!  

We then walked to see if we could see the otter in the correct loch which although beautiful did not deliver on the otter front! The female otter swims down to the sea for hunting and brings the food back up to the loch for the cubs, so she is either out for a while or in for a while, which is not good for us tourists.

Birds Spotters Corner: Buzzard - Looking down on it soaring below, magic! Hooded crows, Grey Herons, and of course, cuckoos - they seem to be everywhere on Harris.

Tomorrow we travel to North Uist.

Rating for Flodabay Farm - 9/10 - a unique site- just 3 pitches in an amazing setting-wild camping with electric and fresh farm  produce! Tony and Sharon could not have been more welcoming. Although initially sceptical because of the exposed setting we loved it!

Day 16 May 30th 

Aimed to set off this am at 10am -managed 10.45 -not bad!

We travelled to Leverburgh to  we catch the ferry over to Berneray across the sound of Harris and then on to North Uist. Fridge stocked with Tony's smoked salmon and cumberland sausages.

We stopped off in Rodel to see St Clements Church, burial place of the MacLeods of Harris and Dunvegan of Skye. The church was built in the pre reformation era -1520's hence it's tower -saved from ruination in the 18thC and fully restored in 1873 by the Countess of Dunmore. It is set on a grassy hill overlooking countryside with grazing sheep.

We then travelled north up the west side of Harris in search of the famous glorious deserted beaches as we had time to kill before the ferry. We now know why the beaches are deserted - you can't get down to them. Most are fenced off and with no parking access is severely limited. Fences were everywhere on Harris. We are told it is to keep the sheep out, as sheep have right to roam. If you don't want them in your garden, house or car, it is up to you to put the fence up.

After a quick photo shot we retraced our tracks back to Leverburgh to await the ferry. This is a "trapped" lake. Sea comes over the beach at high tide and is then stranded. The sea is on the other side.

We enjoyed the ferry crossing in the sun - the ferry has to do slalom like manoeuvres to avoid numerous hidden rocks in the Sound of Harris - apparently one of Scotland's most tortuous routes-the Calmac Ferry made it look easy! 
We drove over the link road from Berneray on to North Uist and set off for our campsite set within the Balranald RSPB reserve. The scenery was certainly flatter and greener than experienced in Harris-also the beaches were extensive -difficult to differentiate between the silvery sea and the sand stretching out for what appeared to be miles.

Following our Rough Guide book we decided to travel "a couple of miles down the road" past Balranald to the Hebridean Smokehouse to purchase some fish for dinner. 6 miles later we asked a local who said "keep going it's just over the hill". Another mile or so we found it. Note to self: 2 Rough Guide miles = 8 road miles. We hope the smoked sea trout is worth the mileage!

 Graham's bird spotter's corner - New birds spotted today were (by accident - I was driving not looking): Pink Footed Geese. I've seen these before on local reserves but never thought too much of them as to me they looked just like greylags, but close up, without binos, their feet really are very pink.

Day 17: May 31st.

A chill day. With mediocre weather promised and views of a field we have a lazy start and then go for the RSBP trail walk. Wow! What we thought was a sandy field was actually the edge of a beach, a headland and another even bigger beach, all in an RSPB reserve full of nesting sea and wading birds. Now, this walk could be boring unless you're into birds but for one of us it was just great. The day alternated between bird watching and examining bird books and to cap it all it was in the sun too. The site even had internet so Carol could download some (non-bird) books on her kindle. (Game of Thrones!?!).

One of the beaches. There really is no need for the gillet - it is warm.

A Dunlin

A non-bird photo
Another non bird photo -Carol was fascinated by the Machair - the grasses and plants growing in the sand beside the beach-This part of Scotland has 70% of all the Machair in the world! Here you can see tiny wild pansies and other teeny little flowers.The best time to see it in full flower is end June/July apparently-bet it looks a picture! Also covering the cliff tops were what looked to be miles of daisies. Carol"s off to buy a book on Botany asap!
New birds we spotted today in Graham's bird spotter's corner  were:
Dunlins, Oystercatchers, Sanderlings, Lapwings, Turnstones, Snipes, Arctic Terns and Wheatears. I know I've mentioned Arctic Terns before but they are fast becoming my favourite; swooping over the water, hovering like a kestrel and then diving vertically for fish - I could watch them all day.

Rating for Balranald Hebridean Holiday site -8/10. Clean shower facilities. Uninspiring location in a flat field -the beach however was just a minutes walk away!

Day 18: First of June: White Rabbits!

Woke today to pouring rain- so had to cheer ourselves up with a cooked breakfast!

With time to kill before catching the ferry to Skye late pm we headed back (the couple of miles) to the Hebridean Smokehouse shop and Carol bought a few tasteful souvenirs. We then drove leisurely to Lochmaddy - the views were amazing -so many extensive beaches with vivid green sea contrasting with the white sand.

We passed this traditional croft on our journey to Lochmaddy 

In Lochmaddy we visited the excellent visitor centre/museum/cafe where we had very tasty cake and coffee. There was also an exhibition of BA students art work - predictably the art we liked best had been sold-phew!

We then walked just over a mile to a community art sculpture - "the hut of shadows". This was a stone built hut like building with a camera obscura projecting the view of the sea and landscape on the walls of the dark inner wall of the structure. Needless to say Graham struggled to see the art within!
To get there we had to cross what appeared to be an early prototype for the forth suspension bridge!
Back for further coffee and cake -we like to think we are contributing to the local economy.

Graham outside the " hut of shadows" -the little gap is where the camera obscura is placed.You have to stoop to an almost crawl to get in and then adjust to the darkness to see the image.

Then on to the ferry to Skye. We saw puffins,guillemots and gannets during our crossing -what a treat.

On arriving at our campsite for the night Graham was already mourning the simple camping and remoteness of our outer Hebridean sites. First impressions of Skye were not favourable; the campsite was larger and busier and the roads were like England - all pot-holed, everyone drives like maniacs, the campsite is rubbish, and Portree is full of tourists, and I don't mean us tourers and tuggers, I mean (sharp intake of breath) ... coaches. ( Calm down Graham dear)

Tomorrow we head back to Mainland Scotland to Arisaig for 3 nights.

Rating for Torvaig campsite -8/10. (Ed. 6/10) Friendly owners. Clean basic shower facilities. Very sloped pitches -we were on a lean even with our chocks in place (ramps you drive on to to try to level the van). Also it was busy with not a lot of space between pitches - Dundee on one side, Poland on the next. Nice views of the Cuillins though in the distance-on and off through the mist. 

Day 19 2nd June - Still on Skye!

A bit of a nothing day really!

We set off for Armadale to catch the ferry with a stop over at the Aros Centre just a short drive out of Portree, and which has a live webcam link to a Sea Eagle's nest. There was an admission charge - something the RSBP almost never do and what a rip! The live web cam was down, the "audio visual" was a saccharine touristy advertorial film for Skye, and to cap it all was full of of New Zealanders talking to each other like they'd just met or something. Graham the "warden" (ie film projectionist) did give an interesting talk on identifying a sea eagle (i.e. it's big - very big). Sea Eagles used to exist in Britain and have no known predators except us; man, and we wiped them all out to hang them on our walls. Anyway, after a couple of attempts eaglets from Norway were re-introduced and we left happy in the knowledge that there are now 60 pairs of sea eagles in Scotland and they are now self-sustaining.

Off the main road to Armadale (the ferry), Skye revealed a nicer side; less traffic, proper road surface, a nice, relaxing drive. We looked forward to the renowned Clan Donald to take in the magnificent gardens and a nice lunch. However, several coach-loads of French tourist just beat us to it and reserved the whole restaurant (sorry, no room but they won't be long, only an hour - you know the french and their lunches). Coffee and eat-ups in Rex again and then on to the ferry terminal.

We kicked around the terminal -browsing in the gift shops until the ferry arrived but didn't buy a thing-what's the fun in that! (Carol). At the ferry we saw a blue monster mobile film truck - this thing was huge, even the logo was bigger than our van. Gordon the driver explained it folds out width-wise to 3 times its width: Screen at the end with 80 seats stacked towards the cab. The whole thing is self-contained with roof, sides and floor. Air-conditioned with popcorn and drinks supplied by locals. Everything allowed except hot food. He goes all round the islands and where roads are too narrow it stops at ferry terminals only, mostly packed out according to Gordon and he's looking forward to Star-Trek. (Sure he won't be after 20-odd viewings!)

A short drive from Mallaig took us to Sunnyside Touring site near Arisaig: our base for the next 3 nights. Our pitch has great views to the small isles.

Graham decided to cycle around Arisaig for an explore. I love this place! (Graham) (thank god! Carol) The village has two restaurants, a Spar, lots of yachts in the bay, the sound of sheep, the usual birds and, of course, cuckoos, the only soundtrack - the perfect antidote to Skye. Later we walk up to the nearest hotel for our evening meal, a power cut means half the menu is off but everyone gets fed and is happy - and the walk back is glorious - sunset at half past ten!

Day 20 3rd June

Today started misty and then we had sun for most of the day.
Taking advantage of laundry facilities we walked to the nearest beach whilst we waited for the washing machine to complete its stuff. The site has almost private access on to the beach which was deserted for quite a time as we walked along it. White fine sand, rock pools,clear blue sea and views of the small isles (Eigg and Rum) and Skye - what a perfect combination. Are we in the Bahamas?

Not sure anyone wants to see me with my top off anymore - so look away now.

After a while Carol goes to check the white goods so it's just me and my new friend; throaty.

Until the next door neighbour turns up with the dogs...

 (Well it is her beach, or access anyway!) 5 sheepdogs and 2 jack russells ball chasing in the sea. The JR's don't stand a chance so they've developed this technique of jumping up to grab the ball before it is hurled into the sea. Two of the dogs patrol the path down to the farm for which there is a strict 10mph limit. If any vehicle travels at more than 10mph the dogs go barking crazy. At 9mph the head lifts but you're OK, but at 10mph you will get a stern telling off!

After lunch we cycled to Morar approximately 6 miles north - where the famous beach scenes were filmed for the film Local Hero. Morar is a lovely village with access to a string of stunning white sand beaches. It is also a stop on the way of the famous Jacobite Steam Train which travels from Fort William to Mallaig. We saw the train weaving it's way in the distance from our campsite earlier trailing its plume of smoke and sounding it's whistle. It's a train we want to travel on but at the moment we are at the end rather than the start.

Throughout the cycle route we hugged the coast looking over beautiful beaches and magnificent views of the isles across the water. There is even a golf course - on this hole the fairway ends before the river, in all about 40 yards from the pin, so that would be interesting for visitors.

Day 21 4th June

This morning we cycled to Arisaig Marina in the hope there had been a cancellation on the boat trip to Eigg - and there had been! - our cup runneth over! 

Spent the 1 hour trip over on the Sheerwater motor boat chatting to fellow passengers. There was a party of 20 Finns dressed for some serious walking; boots, poles, rucksacks, who were heading for Eigg like us and a coach load of old people heading on to Rum. One of the finnish party particularly wooed the more elderly female passengers -allowing a lady to look through his monocular -stating the best thing was that the older lady could look through the lens with one eye and watch younger men with the other! -greeted with much amusement!

We arrived on Eigg and spent a little time over coffee and cake (of course!) discussing our route for the day-we had 5 hours -now 4.5 hrs to enjoy a walking tour of Eigg. Following a locally produced guide we had a varied walk along the coast and edge of wood slowly climbing to the island landmark An Sgurr (1292 ft) which we can see from our campsite on the mainland. 

An Sgurr is eagle country, and looks it. Unfortunately for us it was just buzzard country. 

We then walked back to the pier through the grounds of the Lodge -the former laird's house -now a centre promoting green lifestyles. This was once a grand house and garden in it's time and although you can still get a feel of it's beauty, it appears rather neglected with shrubs leggy and fallen trees left where they fell. 

The population of Eigg bought the island in 1997 (following an unhappy history of private ownership) helped by donations from allover the world. Now, we may be wrong here but we felt a few of the Eiggans were just a tad lazy judging by the many cars with bumpers hanging off and the general air of inactivity and disrepair. If they're so green and living off the land, shouldn't they be repairing roads, mending fences and general maintenance while the weather is good? As to cars, due to the island being private there is no insurance, tax or MOT. Makes you wonder what happens when you want to put an extension on your house.
After a 3 hour walk the liveliest place appeared to be the cafe/bar at the pier where we enjoyed a late lunch and a pint, noting that beer was the beverage of choice for the finnish contingent - who we sat near to and apart from our tea drinking compatriots! - in the spirit of european solidarity obviously!

View of Rex from Eigg.

We enjoyed an uneventful passage back to Arisaig. Graham chatting to 2 local teachers - a music and a PE teacher who had travelled on the ferry to both deliver a 1 hour lesson to the 12 children of Eigg school. (Note: 4 hours travel there, 1 hour teaching, 4 hours travel back). Carol chatted to the loudest of the finnish contingent: "So did you manage to climb An Sgurr?" "No, why - we had a nice walk and drunk beer and wine and picnicked"  responded the Finns. The discussion soon changed to whisky, scottish attractions, the price of booze in Finland and the EU - which caused the most heated of discussion!

Last night at Arisaig. We love this place! Quiet, off the beaten track and the right side of Scotland for the magnificent views, but still not too remote.

Eigg (left, more flat - An Sgurr on the left), Rum (right, mountainous)

Skye and the Cuillins - still snow on but you need binos to see it.

We fall fall asleep with Morcheeba chilling on the ipod. The perfect end to another perfect day. Tomorrow we travel to Oban and ferry to Islay.