A Report on My Recent Two-Week Trek Around the North of Scotland
Skye has some of the most dramatic scenery I’ve ever seen. The ancient, volcanic Cuillin Hills rise 3,000 feet out of the ocean and The Old Man of Storr towers above the northern Skye roads.
I spent three days on the island (known best through “The Skye Boat Song”) driving the single track roads and stopping to watch wildlife. The most beautiful sight from those three days was an albatross gliding in the arc of a rainbow over the Atlantic Ocean. The powerful bird glided for a few minutes, only flapping its wings once, facing the wind head on.
My two favorite photos from Skye feature sheep in front of the Cuillin Hills. The sheep grazed with the cattle near Glenbrittle Beach, and there was no fence to prevent them from wandering over to the car park. The first picture gives a sense of place for where that sheep lives: at the foot of the Cuillin Hills. The second picture shows the ewe square and balanced, head up beautifully, as if she were performing for a judge.
After Skye, I was to drive to Thurso.
So I thought.
For both Ireland and the United Kingdom, I created a spreadsheet that contained all of my travel information. Every so often, I’d look at it to make sure I was headed in the right direction.
On Skye, I disconnected from my phone and the Internet for three days and forgot about my spreadsheet.
When I left Skye, I set the navigator for Thurso, fueled up, and drove across Skye Bridge to the mainland.
I’d traveled for around 45 minutes when I turned onto a main highway and saw a tall sign listing town names and distances in miles to those towns. The last line said, “Ullapool, 64.”
“OH, WAIT!” I yelped. “I’m supposed to go to Ullapool!”
I pulled over to regroup and reset the navigator for Ullapool.
Now, I was on the North 500, a route along the northern coasts of Scotland. The drive is full of dramatic scenery, taking the traveler through rocks, lochs and valleys.
I had no plans for when I arrived in Ullapool. At first, I thought I might just go to the library and sort through photos. But my first evening there, I met three Scotsmen in the common room of the hostel. They also were traveling the North 500, and we compared itineraries. As I didn’t have exact plans for the next day, I ended up joining them on their hill walk to find some caves.
As soon as we left the car and embarked on the trail, hail pelted our backs. A minute later, it poured, sheets of rain sweeping across the valley and the rocky river bed. Then, a cold wind blew up the valley, pushing us forward.
I was happy to reach the sheltering caves.
Two of the hill walkers immediately dropped into a hole toward the back of the cave, crawled through a crevice and scrambled up the other side, waving and saying, “Hello!” to their third companion through a small tunnel leading back to the cave opening.
I hadn’t planned on following, but then the two exclaimed that they’d found crystals, and I didn’t want to miss those. While leaning over the initial drop, I fumbled and my headlamp fell down into the darkness. It was too weak to show its surroundings. Yet, I found a bit of footing to half climb, half jump down. Then, I inched through the narrow fissure on my back to reach a small cavern.
We went as far as we could with only hiking gear, turning off our headlamps and flashlights at one point to see the absolute darkness.
I crawled back through the crevice as quickly as I could and then was given a hand to climb back up to the top. The rock was slick, and I couldn’t gain footing. But with the help, I made it out, happy I’d conquered the cave and glad to be back in the open.
The weather was better on the hike back, and after that, we drove around to see what we could see, finding the Summer Isles, a castle, and lots of sheep.
From Ullapool, I drove to Thurso, a stop for the night. The next morning, I boarded a ferry for Orkney, where I spent two days exploring ancient civilizations and a sandstone cathedral and discovering that I would make a terrible Viking.
After returning to the mainland, I drove south along the coast to finish the North 500. Then, I left that track and headed toward my final stop, Aberdeen.
The three Scotsmen were from the Aberdeen area, and one of the first things they told me I had to do when I visited was, “Eat a rowie.”
They explained that the rowie (the “row” part rhymes with “ow” rather than “dough”), or buttery, was developed for sailors. It’s a type of biscuit (biscuit in American terms; a type of bread) that contains so much fat (the ingredient list contains both lard and butter) it won’t stale.
So to conclude my two-week adventure around the north of Scotland, I ate a buttery.
To be more specific, I took one bite of a buttery, instantly felt my heart rate quicken and my eyes widen, and couldn’t eat another bite. It tasted like a croissant on steroids, and it badly needed raspberry jam.
I have saved it for tomorrow…or the next day…or the day after that…or….