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Issue 64 - The Wild West

Scotland Magazine Issue 64
August 2012

 

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The Wild West

Sally Toms leads us on our continuing journey round the Scottish mainland, from Wester Ross down into Lochalsh

The West Highlands is a unique, wild and ancient landscape; much of it inaccessible by road and characterised its distinctive mountain ranges. If you’ve seen the 2007 fantasy movie Stardust, you may recognise the empty, epic panoramas; the craggy mountain tops painted with shadows of scudding clouds, as they slip up and down the steep sided glens.

Loch Maree
This inland loch lies in a magnificent valley, the northern side of the loch is completely inaccessible by road. Loch Maree contains five large wooded islands and more than 25 smaller ones, many of which contain their own smaller lochs, or lakelets. All of the loch's islands are conservation areas. The largest, Isle Maree, is the only island in Britain to contain a loch that itself contains an island (an island within an island within an island). Perhaps this is why it become a sacred site for the region’s earliest inhabitants; from ancient Celts, to Vikings and Christians, who have all left their own indelible reminders.

The most ancient of which is the druid circle, a humble stone circle hidden among the trees. Archaeologists think this circle was constructed in 100 BC. Many people are buried at this sacred site, including a pair of Viking lovers and, more recently, the manager of the local hotel who took his own life after accidentally poisoning some of his guests.

Also on the island are the ruins of a chapel believed to be the 8th century hermitage of Saint Máel Ruba. This saint is thought to be connected to a Celtic moon deity, which points to why, as recently as the 19th century, the dark waters of the loch were thought to cure lunacy. Numerous poor souls were bound, dunked and rowed clockwise around the island, then forced to drink the water from the chapel’s holy well.

Nearby are the island’s wishing trees, trunks studded with coins, each one representing someone’s wish. The trees are long since trees, poisoned by the copper hammered into their bark. For it was said that if your coin fell from the tree, your wish would not be granted.

When Queen Victoria visited the loch 1877, she left her own wish behind on the island, but don’t be tempted to remove any of the fallen coins as a souvenir, taking anything from the island is thought to bring bad luck.

Inverewe
This spectacular garden overlooking Loch Ewe has become a place of pilgrimage for gardeners, as it somehow manages to cultivate a remarkable collection of tender plants despite occupying a position as northerly as places such as Hudson Bay and St. Petersberg.

The 50-acre garden was carved out of an unfertile rocky hillside by Sir Osgood Mackenzie in 1862 and eventually gifted to the National Trust for Scotland.

Its unique growing environment is maintained by the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, top soil imported to replace the gravely rock, peat and some tall native pines which provide shelter against strong wines and salt spray.

Consequently, the garden provides an almost continual display of colour throughout the year. Himalayan rhododendrons, Tasmanian eucalypts and many Chilean and South African plants are featured, together with a large collection of New Zealand plants including the National Collection of the genus Olearia.

The herbaceous borders and Walled Garden look fabulous from early spring to late summer, when flowering bulbs and plants are grown alongside vegetables which traditionally were for the family in the “big hoose".

Applecross
Sandwiched between mainland mountain masses and the Isle of Skye, lies the Applecross peninsula. This remote landscape is home to just 238 people, and accessible by only two roads. Its Gaelic name A’Chomraich, means ‘the sanctuary’, and it is literally a haven from the noise and clutter of modern life.

Extremely isolated, Applecross was only accessible by boat until the early 20th century, and for many years after that the only access was via one of Scotland's most notoriously treacherous roads, the Bealach na Ba (‘Pass of the Cattle’). This is one of the very highest roads in the UK and offers grand views from the summit (626 m).

Continue south and you enter Lochalsh, an area renowned for its spectacular mountain ranges, empty glens and picturesque fishing villages. To the west, the Isle of Skye dominates the view over a short stretch of water and is accessible by a bridge from the Kyle of Lochalsh.

This is the largest village in Lochalsh and has the most amenities, including a leisure centre, tourist information, and fantastic views of the Skye Bridge and the Cuillin Range.

Eilean Donan
On a summer’s day with the blue sky reflecting off the water, you’d be forgiven for thinking Eilean Donan the prettiest castle in Scotland. But, when this fortified structure was first built in the 13th century, its purpose was purely to protect the lands of Kintail against the Vikings marauders who, between 800 and 1266, rampaged their way around the North of Scotland and the Western Isles.

Later, four years after the failure of the Jacobite rising in 1715, Eilean Donan played host to a garrison of soldiers borrowed from Spain to support the Jacobite cause. They had established a magazine of gunpowder and were awaiting the delivery of weapons from Spain.

When the English Government caught wind of this, three heavily armed frigates were sent to ‘negotiate’. The bombardment of the castle lasted three days, but still the castle stood firm (largely thanks to its walls, which were in places up to 14 feet thick). Finally, the English soldiers went ashore and captured the castle by sword. They spent the next two days doing what the frigates could not accomplish and razed the castle using the stockpiled gunpowder.

For the next 200 years, the ruins of Eilean Donan lay neglected, abandoned and open to the elements. It was given new lease of life by Lt Colonel John Macrae-Gilstrap, who bought the island in 1911 and spent 20 years restoring it. It often comes as a surprise to learn that this most iconic of Scottish castles, as you see it today, is not even 100 years old.

Today, you can explore nearly every part of this impressive castle from the kitchens to the battlements. There is also a visitor centre and museum that explores the history of the castle and surrounding area.

A curious feature of Eilean Donan is that it has one of only two left-handed spiral staircases in Great Britain. When the original castle was built, the reigning MacRae was left handed.

Castles were more commonly built with staircases that ascended clockwise, so that a right handed defender could use his sword to merrily chop through anyone coming up, whereas a right handed attacker would find it difficult to swing their sword without hitting the wall.

Falls of Glomach
These nearby waterfalls are probably the most spectacular in Britain. The falls are at the end of a two and a half mile walk from the car park at Dorusduain. Although the name means ‘gloomy’, these falls are anything but. Try and visit just after a period of heavy rain, when the raging water plunges 375 feet in a single leap.

Glen Shiel
Standing in your path as you journey south are the magnificent and unmistakeable Five Sisters of Kintail: a dramatic range of mountain peaks that form part of the North Glen Shiel ridge. This area is extremely popular for walking, and as three of the sisters are more than 3,000 feet, for munrobagging. The South Glen Shiel Ridge includes no fewer than seven munros, and in between them lies Glen Shiel itself, site of the first and last battle to be fought as part of the 1719 ‘little rising’, and the last to be fought on British soil involving a foreign enemy.

At the same time as Eilean Donan was being empted of the Spanish and blown up, Government forces confronted the Jacobite army at Glen Shiel, led by the Earl of Seaforth, the 10th Earl Marischal. Following him were few hundred Highlanders including the clan MacRae, Rob Roy and a few MacGregors, and considerably less Spanish soldiers than were promised (the invasion fleet was destroyed by a storm before it even set sail for England).

The battle continued for several hours, and despite being well matched, the Jacobites were defeated once again. Partly because the support expected from the Lowlanders failed to materialise. This area of Scotland had settled down under the Hanoverian crown, which though unloved, did not move it to outright revolt. At least, not yet...