Day 270 - Scotland : passing places, Walkers shortbread, and other things


It is with mixed feelings that we waved goodbye to Scotland this morning as our ferry pulled out of Loch Ryan into the Irish sea. We've spent the last 9 weeks exploring what the country has to offer, and have enjoyed where possible simply living in the different places we have visited.

The geographical extremes of Scotland are well illustrated by the place we left from - Stranraer. It is a hundred mile drive from the English border and yet it is further south than Newcastle-upon-Tyne. This is a country that has 6200 miles of coastline on the mainland alone, and yet is only 25 miles wide in the middle. That's not normal, but it makes for a lot of cool bridges.

Each place we have visited has been special in a different way for us. Edinburgh was a time spent with friends, where the warm welcome was more than enough to compensate for the freezing weather and heavy snow. We then left the snow and ice behind by counter-intuitively heading north-west, first stopping at Loch Ness and ending up in Durness. These are the places where the landscapes and geology impressed us first and foremost. Even if the Caledonian mountains have been ground down to stumpy hills by millennia of glacial erosion, there is still an echo of much greater altitudes in the shape of the landscape, which was emphasised for us by the snow topping every ben and cairn from Ullapool northwards. We were spoiled rotten by the weather in Durness and spent two gorgeous days on the beach, with children given the freedom to roam up and down sand-dunes and climb rocky outcrops. Caithness was never going to match up to that, and it didn't, although we did like the fact that the coffee in John O' Groats was only available in black or white. Latte culture hasn't made it up that far yet, never mind the more recent flat-white revolution.

South
East
Talking of John O' Groats, this would be a good time to bring up cardinal points. From the fuss that is made about them, one would imagine that Lands End and John O' Groats would be the most northerly, southerly, or somethingly of something places in Britain. They are not, which must be the most depressing discovery
for people who have just cycled the length of the island.
Having recently visited the Ardnamurchan lighthouse, the most westerly point of the British mainland, I concluded that the best thing about Lands End is its accessibility.
West
North
Anyway, we have now done the four cardinal points of the British mainland - Lizard Point in the South, Ness Point in the East at Lowestoft, Dunnet Head in the North - just up the road from John O' Groats, and finally the Ardnamurchan lighthouse near Kilchoan.

Getting the Ardnamurchan peninsula into our tour involved quite a convoluted
way of getting to the Isle of Mull but while drawing up the plans for our tour I agreed with myself that it was worth the detour in order to put Lands End in its rightful place.

Between Caithness in the far north and the Isle of Mull, we spent 2 weeks in Aviemore being sporty and outdoor adventure-types, and then our route swung south to near Glasgow before climbing back up to Fort William via the banks of Loch Lomond. In each place we enjoyed the encounters with locals; on trains, in buses, at the ski-school, at church, or in the library. We have been made welcome everywhere and no-one blinked an eyelid when we turned up in the middle of a remote country estate in our motorhome. I was always the most stressed out person concerned that I was about to crush a tiny stone bridge built for pack horses.


Ironically, the place where we felt most at home, was also the place where our motorhome wasn't welcome. Recent legislation means that the price of ferries between the mainland and Scottish islands is cheap - really cheap. Our ferry from Kilchoan to Tobermory cost £21, and the Calmac man apologised for the price and said he really couldn't put me in at being shorter than 6m (the van is 7.5m with the bike rack). The low cost of ferries has caused a flood of campers and motorhomes to the islands, and in many cases those visitors are able to park anywhere and enjoy the island's facilities without needing to spend any money at all in local businesses.

Panoramic view from our wild camping spot on the way back from Iona
Apart from one night where we stopped and camped in the middle of nowhere on our drive back from Iona, we camped in the Tobermory campsite but that doesn't seem to be the norm. As one lady pointed out, the harbour facilities in Tobermory were built for boats and their crews and they pay harbour fees, but in summer dozens of motorhomes park on the harbour car park and use the same facilities for free. The roads in Mull were also a challenge in the van, with blind bends on single track roads a regular feature. The van and I could cope although quite frequently the other drivers couldn't, judging by the looks on their faces. I mustn't exaggerate however - we were made especially welcome on Mull - it's just that the motorhome invasion is a new challenge that everyone is still working out how to deal with.



As I finish this review of our 9-week tour - a few words of feedback for the Scottish tourism industry :

1) What is going on with toilet flushes? You have the most ineffectual and well... crap toilet performance in the UK. I have lost hours of my life to this over the last 9 weeks and the last 9 hours in Belfast have confirmed to me that this is a Scottish issue. I expect that there is some over-zealous water-saving legislation come out of Holyrood - it can't just be coincidence. Can it?

2) Good job with the tourism signs. They are everywhere and no café, B&B or campsite is without one, even in the far flung corners of Sutherland.

3) Whatever the charm of passing places and the little wave, 2-way roads are an excellent well-proven idea.

4)  We bought some Walkers Shortbread on our way out as an exit tax. You could formalise that in law and then tourists don't have to hesitate about it.


The mixed feelings I mentioned at the start were well summed up by Laura as we drove off the ferry in Belfast. She said "I'm worried I won't like Northern Ireland because it's not Scotland". It was time for us to leave, but we're in no doubt that we'll be going back.







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