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Morning haze over Loch Maree with Mt. Slioch in the background

We had planned to leave Loch Torridon around 0930 as we had a long-ish drive and lots of things we wanted to see, but there was a bit of a muddle with the two room bills which required the deciphering skills of Alan Turing. By the time we were all satisfied that both bills were correct, the one and a half page bill had become three pages because all the items that were there by mistake were added a second time, but with a minus sign against them. It was all sorted out eventually and after we warbled about the idiosyncrasies of technology for a bit – which I am always happy to moan about because as far as I am concerned, for all the positives there are at least ten minuses – we finally drove out the gate about 10:00 am.

Loch Maree from near Poolewe

We drove towards Kinlochewe and then west along the southern shores of Loch Maree, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful lochs in Scotland. Named for St. Maelrubha (in Gaelic ‘MaRuibh’, pronounced maree), the loch has many small islets which are dotted with ancient Scots’ pine and juniper. Sometime in the late 7th or early 8th century, St. Maelrubha built a chapel on the largest island of Innis Maree which became a devotional site for those in the throes of lunacy. Word was that the afflicted could be cured by immersion in water from a sacred well on the island. The chapel also attracted a covey of anchorites whose remains are in the graveyard among the chapel ruins.  Innis Maree was also the site of an annual bull sacrifice, a pagan rite that continued until the mid 17th century. Cattle were prized in these parts, so to sacrifice one was the highest offering by which to honor the gods and St. Maelrubha seems wisely to have adopted the custom and adapted it to serve Christianity.

The Boatooterie in the Sittooterie, Gairloch

It was another glorious day although the morning haze had not yet lifted as we wended our way along the A832 towards Gairloch which we had already determined would be our first stop. It was a wise decision and at Coast Coffee – a delightful spot with friendly staff and amazing cakes, tarts and pastries – we sampled freshly-baked, still-warm, scones with clotted cream and jam, accompanied by flat whites topped with an artfully drawn fern. (For the first time, I know how this is done…..) As we sat at a long wooden table munching our scones and looking out over the loch J pronounced that he could quite happily live here. In no time he had it all worked out; we’d come and have a leisurely mid-morning coffee here every day. We’d have a dog or two and I’d have a garden to putter about in. We’d take up Gaelic and hillwalking and beach-combing and learn about the geology and history of the area and in winter we’d sit by a roaring fire with our single malts. This is what being on holiday does to you. Still, it’s not entirely out of the question and more than a few foreigners have done it. In fact, most of the people we met in the Highlands, both tourists and people living there, were English. But I know well enough not to do anything rash until we have spent at least three months in winter and another three months in summer, which often feels like winter anyway.

The Sitooterie, Gairloch

His reverie was partly sparked by the sitooterie, a community project that turned a derelict water’s edge into a delightful floral garden with benches and tables where people can sit and watch for sea otters or just admire the views. He admired the spirit of citizen cooperation that had made it happen. (Sitooterie is just a playful Scots’ English name for a place to ‘sit out’.)  Continuing on towards Ullapool we passed Loch Ewe and a NATO refueling base near the little village of Aultbea, where we saw two naval ships. In World War II, Loch Ewe was used as an anchorage for navy vessels and a refueling base for the ships of the Arctic Convoys that sailed to Russia. The Russian Arctic Convoy Museum in Aultbea  outlines the important, not to mention daring, role these convoys played during the war. We did not have time to visit unfortunately, but we consoled ourselves with the fact that we’ll have plenty of time to do so when we move here…..

Navy vessels at Loch Ewe, near Aultbea

From Loch Ewe and Gruinard Bay, the road to Ullapool takes a long loop along the southern shore of Little Loch Broom to Braemore, before continuing north along the northern shore of Loch Broom. Ullapool is a town of less than 2000 people yet it is by far the largest town in the north west. Although there has been a settlement here since ancient times, the Ullapool of today was laid out in 1788 by the Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, as a herring fishing village. Herring was an important resource in Scotland in both the north-west and north-east of the country. Boats from the north-east ports came here to fish and from the 17th century, west coast herring was salted and packed for export to Europe. Such was the abundance, that in the 18th century the British Fisheries Society developed ports like Ullapool and Tobermory on the Isle of Mull to process the fish. Eventually of course, the waters were over-fished and the industry collapsed. These days lobster, langoustines, crabs and scallops are fished from the local waters, with most of the catch still exported to Europe – especially France and Spain.

Gruinard Bay

We had lunch at The Ceilidh Place which is also a small hotel. Just off the restaurant and bar area is a small but well-stocked bookstore with a strong literary bent, as well as a section devoted to all things Scottish, which is run by a charming German woman. The Ceilidh Place and indeed Ullapool in general, is known for live music performances, a well-attended music festival and a vibrant literary scene where poets and writers in both English and Gaelic give readings of their work. There was no music or poetry readings that lunchtime however, and after some succulent freshly-caught seafood washed down with a local ale, we went to visit the town. Drawn to the sea, we passed the ferry which runs to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, crossed the road and walked into a shop where J bought a Harris tweed jacket. So did John. As you do. Budget blown, we got back into the car and set off towards the north where I was anxious to visit Ardvreck Castle.

Ruins of Ardvreck castle

This is wild and lonely country – magnificent, awe-inspiring and so old…. The oldest rock here is Lewisian gneiss which is an astonishing 2 to 3 billion years old. It overlays Torridonian sandstone which is a mere youth at 800 million years old. This overlaying of young rock by much older rock is known as the Moine Thrust which was first studied and mapped by two eminent Victorian geologists, whose discoveries helped advance the understanding of plate tectonics. This extraordinary geology is not always evident to the untrained eye – at least it isn’t to mine, but along the road there are unusual outcroppings where even the amateur can see completely different rock types glued together badly, as it were….. An information panel usually describes what you are looking at. Far off and up close the peaks are singular; a loaf of bread, a dowager’s hump, a pyramid – and from them occasionally, great folds and ridges of stone peter out into the sea lochs like gnarled fingers spent by time. Some peaks are capped with Cambrian quartzite which gives them an unexpected sparkle. As we drove north the skies turned grey again and low clouds mantled the peaks, lending all a forbidding aspect. I thought it entirely fitting; the region’s tempestuous history as a reflection of its tumultuous birth.

Calda House from Ardvreck castle

Located at the southern end of Loch Assynt, the 15th century Ardvreck, seat of the MacLeods, is a perfect example of the area’s long and violent history. Built as a simple rectangular block on a defensive mound, Ardvreck was enlarged in the 16th century with a tower, vaulted cellars which held the kitchen and dungeon, and a Great Hall on the first floor. In 1650 James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, arrived at Ardvreck seeking sanctuary after his defeat at the Battle of Carbisdale. The marquis was a Royalist who was fighting the Covenanters and the Scottish government in what became known as the War of the Three Kingdoms. The chief, Neil MacLeod, was away but in a notorious act of treachery, his wife tricked Montrose into the dungeon and imprisoned him. She then sent for government troops who took Montrose to Edinburgh where he was promptly found guilty of treason and hanged. This bit of infamy was shocking because it went against the Highland code of honor which was tacitly understood and observed. Standards had to be upheld before you back-stabbed an unwelcome guest. The turncoat MacLeods, who were amply rewarded by the government in cash and goods, got their comeuppance in 1672 after a 14-day siege by their rivals, the MacKenzies of Wester Ross, they lost Ardvreck which they never regained.

Loch Assynt with Calda House and Ardvreck Castle

Half a century later, in 1726, Kenneth MacKenzie II of Assynt commissioned Calda House for his wife Frances. The ‘modern’ style with its M-gabled, symmetrical design was the first of its kind in the north-west Highlands. But the house was a luxury the MacKenzies could ill-afford and a decade later in a fatal combination of mounting debt incurred through their support of the Royalist cause, Kenneth’s weakness and his wife’s extravagance, the family was reduced to financial ruin. The MacKenzies of Seaforth attempted to buy the house but their sworn enemy the Earl of Sutherland, beat them to it. On 12th May 1737, a band of MacKenzie supporters vowing that no Sutherland would ever live there, looted the place before burning it to the ground. The tale was memorably recorded by George Taylor, in his Historical and Topographical Account of Assynt 1832;

“….a few MacKenzies, actuated by a clannish spirit of ill-will towards the district of Assynt, because it was no longer the property of that family…. sailed from Applecross in Ross, and landing in the night time, on the Assynt coast, proceeded to this house which was at the time uninhabited, and in this clandestine manner, burnt it to the ground, so that the stone walls alone remain, and these have been, since then, partially pulled down. Not content with this mischief, the party proceeded to the Farm of Ledbeg, and houghed all the cattle they could find, and then, skulking among the hills, sneaked out of the district without being seen by any person; their progress having been traced by the wanton mischief perpetrated. This was the last instance, and a very dastardly one, in the County of Sutherland, of violence or outrage arising from clannish feelings of revenge or disappointment.”  

Loch Assynt

As for Ardvreck, it was struck by lightning in 1795 and virtually destroyed. The weeping daughter of a MacLeod chief who drowned in Loch Assynt after marrying the devil in a pact to save her father’s castle, is said to haunt Ardvreck and this does not surprise me. Practically every castle in the land is haunted by the ghost of a woman who drowned herself in a nearby loch due to unrequited love, marrying the devil or offending the fairies…. it’s why you see so many old rowan trees in Scotland near gateways, they are planted to ward off witches.