Highland Fling – by Joan Jaffe (Part Two)

The charm of hiking in the Highlands is the other side of the difficulty: that is, the mostly trackless walks, the obscure destinations only intimated by vague directions, the signless treasures sleeping quietly in remote glens or on top of scree-sided hills, make every discovery extraordinary. You are alone on vast moors, you cross burns below multiple waterfalls, you meet nothing but four footed wildlife—herds of stags grazing on the horizon, the ubiquitous sheep, the wild goats—and, of course, the birds.

Now, travelling with a birder has its own intrinsic peculiarities: we are hiking across a bracken field when I hear a sharp intake of breath from my partner. Possibly he’s having a heart attack! “Oh my God,” he cries out.

“What? What,” I reply in high alarm, reaching out to grasp his arm.

“It’s a blue throated tufted weedler,” he says with awe, binoculars now welded to his eyes. “Just look at that,” he says with deep admiration. “Can you imagine?”

“Wonderful,” I say weakly. “Just wonderful.”

The next day we decide to visit Glengorm, a castle built in 1860 in the baronial style. It has the same history as much of the island; tenant farmers were evicted to make room for a new lifestyle for the rich. One evicted old woman placed a curse on the original owner and said he would never live to see the castle completed. This, in fact, happened: he was killed in a riding accident shortly thereafter. The castle has passed through many hands and is now a sustainable farm. The walk at Glengorm promised Dun Ara, the remains of a 4,000 year old fort, and three ancient standing stones. On the way back, we inadvertently swung up a curved track and end up in the gravel courtyard of the castle. The postman was just leaving a package and a little boy charged out of the imposing front entrance way. “Ach sure,” the postman said in answer to our hesitant question, “yes, you can stay here. Just knock on the door.” For, like many stately homes in Scotland, the castle needs to take in paying guests to make ends meet. The child ran past us and we followed him into a large oak paneled hall. A friendly woman came to scoop him up and gave us a glossy pamphlet describing accommodations. It might be fun to stay in this remarkable turreted Victorian palace, but not for me. Back to Treshnish cottage where history hangs less harshly.

Later, dinner at the oldest inn on Mull the Bellachroy, opened in 1608; an unexpectedly superb meal of local haddock and Scottish steak. Another morning we hike from Calgary Bay, leaving from its beautiful beach with azure and indigo dappled waters. The pier still stands where evicted tenants caught ships out to emigrate and the vestiges of the villages they left are here too. We climb the hill to attain a raised beach and we see our first calf—only four days old, as we later learn—with its huge protective Highland mother. We hike past a standing stone and stop for lunch at a cove and are entranced by three seals playing in the water.

Another day we recklessly take Olive in hand again and search for two sea caves. She warns us to consult the tide tables as “this walk is only possible below half tide. Go eastward along a rough and rocky shore with no defined path,” she says in terms which are majorly understated. However, she promises a “splendid cave 220 feet deep, 35 feet high with an inner changer 40 feet long.”

We manage to scrabble to this cave, leaping from boulder to sea-wet boulder, always with an eye towards the tide, which now seems to be coming in at a terrific rate. Having reached the cave, we’re only left with the little matter of getting out alive and contrary to my usual deference to Dick’s tracking ability, I insist on clambering up the sheer face of a cliff to round the shoreline. He follows me reluctantly but luckily this works out and it gives me some good bargaining power for the rest of the trip.,/p>

Further days of walks and discoveries abound: a hike to Quinish Point where we found—no thanks to Olive—the fossilized tree discovered by a local in just 1984. It lay on the shore, black and sea-washed, its ancient trunk and root ball unmistakable. We found beautiful Langamull Beach on a wild wet rainy morning, and we explored Glen Bellart, the site of the ancient cattle fair where drovers from all over the Western Isles, the mainland, and Ireland met. The rough stone foundations of the huts used at the time of the fairs are still there, overgrown with heather and moss.

Another day we visited the gardens of Torosay, a lovely Victorian house built around 1850, now, unfortunately, closed to the public; then a walk around Duart, the 13th century fortress, home of the Macleans; then a drive to Loch Buie, where, in a wet field, ancient man had erected a circle of eight standing stones. It is remarkable to come across this, as I did, a decade ago, entirely unmarked and unsigned. Today there is a small handwritten sign which says “Follow the white rocks to the stone circle” and as you do, you are aware that unlike the thousands busing to Stonehenge, you are still one of the very few to come to this quiet, private and remarkable place.

On our last full day, we drove south to Carsaig Bay, crossing the island and a high empty mountain sparkling with waterfalls. On that remarkable day we saw a herd of fourteen stags grazing on the moor, a pod of seals playing in the bay, three otters porpoising through the waves, and a pink cottage with a thatched roof.

Early on the morning of the last day I awoke, looked out the window and saw Dick striding resolutely across the bracken, holding his hiking pole like a shepherd’s crook. He had a slightly anxious expression on his face and he was being pursued by a large flock of very determined looking sheep. He quickened his pace, gave a short backward glance, and leaped skittishly over a fence, leaving a group of befuddled and querulous sheep behind. They turned in a puzzled and grumpy sort of way, peered this way and that looking for him, and as far as I know, they may be looking for him still.

I always leave Scotland with deep regret. A journey which allows the traveler to transcend time as well as place is a great gift. In the Scottish Highland, it is easy to do this: the mists obscure more than the outlines of the hills.

And like Conway, the traveler who found the mythical Shangri La and left it behind for the real world, I don’t ever really unpack my bags. I’m off again soon, to the only place which feels like home to me.

If you go: treshnish.co.uk; thedroversinn.co.uk; westernisleshotel.co.uk; bellachroyhotel.co.uk

Article contributed by Joan Jaffe