Today I am calm, relaxed. I wanted to share that with you.
I have just returned from a few days touring the Highlands. The North Coast 500 to be exact. And what has this to do with writing, you may ask? Well, it does us all good to get away from the desk occasionally, to be inspired by new locations, different ways of life.
Nourishment for the soul
I have deadlines, I have family commitments. But just these few days away allowed me to clear my mind, to enjoy stunning scenery (a permanent fixture) and lovely weather (a much more variable commodity!)
You see, I recently moved to the Highlands of Scotland, a little place on the North West coast. It’s within spitting distance of what the Scottish Tourist Board describes as “Scotland’s Route 66” – the North Coast 500. This is a round trip from Inverness, west to Applecross then moving clockwise around the coast until you come back to Inverness. Or anti-clockwise.
It takes in some of the most breath-taking scenery in the British Isles. Living so close, a tour was clearly necessary.
I have heard of travellers taking this route in a day, but why? Surely the point of all that grandeur is to take it slowly and enjoy it. Although this tour was supposed to be a complete break from writing, one of the biggest surprises was the number of literary links that I turned up, without even trying!
Other kinds of nourishment?We travel from Inverness to our new home on the west coast quite regularly, so the first 70 odd miles of the journey are quite familiar. We have explored the Muir of Ord, a rural area on the edge of Inverness, where we discovered a supplier of kiln dried logs for our fires. There’s also a restorer of boats who was willing to sell us an old but (hopefully) sound little day-cruiser to explore the coastal waters where we live (more on that at a later date, perhaps). And of course there’s the Glen Ord Distillery.
As this is possibly our nearest distillery we were honour bound to try it out.
Then there is the Spa Town of Strathpeffer, a pretty little town which became popular in the 19th century for the health giving properties of its waters.
A little museum in the old Pump Room gives a lovely overview of the town. It includes the information that R L Stevenson visited here with his family in September 1880.
A literary connection there, you note.
Hold that thought for later!
We decided to spend four days exploring the route north of Ullapool. This is the tour from which we have recently returned, and which accounts for the calm and relaxed Sarah Mallory who is today writing this. You see, there is something most calming about water and mountains, and this part of the tour has them in abundance.
We travelled to our first night’s accommodation along the A837 beside the beautiful Loch Assynt and took in the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, home of the MacLeods of Assynt. The castle was abandoned after being besieged in 1672 by the MacKenzies, who then used much of the stone to build nearby Calda House in 1726.
Unfortunately this was burned down during fighting between the clans in 1737 and the family was bankrupt by 1739.
More inspiration for a poor writer to squirrel away for future use. As if I didn’t have enough!
On to Lochinver, where views are dominated by the “sugar loaf” outline of Suilven, a mountain of only 2,389 feet (!) and the larger, though more distant Canisp.
Water falls, caves, beaches, archeology…so much to see, so little time. Now, I have to admit I did not discover any literary links at Lochinver (although you may know differently), but nearby Inverkirkaig did have one very strong draw.
Two miles south of Lochinver, along a single track road is a beautiful bay and the little hamlet of Inverkirkaig.
A little further on, at the top of a steep drive is Achins Cafe and Bookshop. There one may refresh the body and then the spirit by browsing shelves crowded with literary classics as well as an abundance of Scottish literature plus modern bestsellers. They included one well known to Libertà friends, fellow author Julie Cohen!
This must be one of the most northerly bookshops in the Highlands and was an unexpected treat, although my credit card took quite a beating! And I had plenty of time to think of this as we struggled with traffic on the next leg of our journey.
End of Day One
We spent the night at Drumbeg, a tiny hamlet where our B&B had the most beautiful views over a sheltered bay to the north. It was only nine o’clock, so we decided to take a stroll in the opposite direction to an old jetty. It’s little used now but no doubt it was once vital for the survival of the old fishing industry. What a way to wind down after a busy day.
The following day dawned wet. Well, this is Scotland. We continued our journey north, heading for Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point on the Scottish mainland. Military exercises take place on the Cape Wrath Range, with firing of live ammunition, so the area is closed off at times during the year. Fortunately, not when we visited in July. A small (very small!) ferry reminiscent of a tin bath takes passengers across the Kyle of Durness.
The road was built in 1828 and it is more of a track, while the minibus is, not to mince words, aged. It takes an hour to cover the 12 mile journey but our driver entertained us with information and anecdotes.
We crossed what was described as a “second-hand Bailey Bridge” and further on, a much more interesting stone bridge (to me, anyway). It was built by Robert Stevenson, who designed the lighthouse.
Dear reader, you may remember I asked you to hold the thought of R L Stevenson at Strathpeffer at the beginning of this ramble. Well, now you see, we come back to that gentleman. It was his grandfather who built the Cape Wrath Lighthouse in 1828, as well as the old stone bridge we crossed on the access road. RLS trained as a civil engineer, but shocked his family by deciding to become a writer, instead.
There is another literary link to Cape Wrath.
In 1814, Sir Walter Scott accompanied RLS’s grandfather and the lighthouse commissioners on an inspection tour of Scottish lighthouses, including Cape Wrath.
To look at lighthouses perched on exposed headlands in the most perilous positions. Hmm.
Another bumpy ride back to the ferry then it was on via Durness to our resting place at Scrabster. (A tenuous literary link there, for those who remember the eccentric Aunt Scrabster in Heyer’s Frederica.) Unfortunately, I cannot say that the view from our window, which overlooked the car park and the harbour, was “nourishing”, but it was only for one night.
Day Three : ice cream isn’t necessarily nourishment for the soul
A quick ice cream at John O’Groats. (To my mind has little to recommend it except the ferry to Orkney.) Then we turned south and headed down the east coast.
Oh dear, more stunning views, more castles, more history and geology. Too much for today’s blog. Well almost…
Below is old Keiss Castle, a ruin from the 16th century, which is now a home for nesting seabirds. There is not much left of the building now, but as we approached along the coast path from the south I thought it quite breath-taking, perched on the edge of the cliff. It must have been an impressive stronghold, in its day.
Next, Keiss Harbour. Built in 1831, it is a pretty place with a three storey Harbour Building (now apartments). The harbour wall reminded me very much of the Cobb at Lyme, where poor Louisa Musgrove came to grief on the steps.
What do you think? (More literary connections, if only in my own imagination).We stopped at Wick to look at the Old Pulteney Distillery (established 1826, so technically Regency Research).
Also the Old Man of Wick, the local sailors’ name for the ruin of Old Wick Castle (probably 12th century) .
Forgive me for not putting in another picture of an old ruin, but I thought this one more interesting!
And it is nourishment, sort of, isn’t it?
We had an overnight stop at Tain. Then we took the Nigg Ferry across the Cromarty Firth (where I believe Ian Rankin has a bolt-hole) and back to Inverness.
We retraced our steps homeward, exhausted by the assault on our senses by what we had seen and learned and the sheer pleasure of driving miles of open road through dramatic scenery. One of the most enduring impressions is the sheer size of the Highlands. One can drive for hours without seeing a dwelling or even a person. This, of course, is wonderful for the historical novelist — experiencing something of what it was like for our ancestors, travelling on foot or horseback, restricted to perhaps no more than thirty miles in any one day.
So you see, one can never quite get away from the day job.
One visit is not nearly enough. But it must do for now.
I have books to write, after all. Perhaps next time I should follow Boswell and Johnson’s tour of the Western Isles…