A more relaxing day

After three long days of driving, I was looking forward to something a bit more relaxing.  I asked the hotel manager for a late check out and spent the morning exploring the grounds of the castle. 

The Grounds of Glengarry Castle

The estate had its own ruined castle (abandoned when the owners realised it would be easier to build a new one than continue to maintain a medieval structure)…..

……and its own loch.

At noon I drove north east up the Great Glen, a long, deep valley formed millions of years ago when the tectonic plate carrying north Scotland crashed into the rest of the British Isles.  The glen had many long, deep lochs, but the most famous by far is Loch Less.

Me at Loch Ness

I couldn’t see the monster but I could imagine how on a dark day people could mistake the waves on the loch as something living.  I did though meet some new friends.

New Friends

From Loch Ness I reached Inverness, the biggest city in the highlands, before taking the scenic road around the edges of the Cairngorms National Park (more about this in a later post) towards the east and Aberdeen.

A glimpse of the mountains of the Cairngorms

On leaving the Cairngorms, the countryside became flatter and greener – almost like parts of England. Consequently, this part of Scotland receives many fewer visitors than the west coast – but as you will see in tomorrow’s post, it still has a lot to offer.  My route took me along the pretty river Spey.

This is whisky country, and every few miles I passed distilleries that you could visit.  I was tempted to drop in to learn how whisky is made, but since I was driving and since I am only a small teddy with a limited capacity for alcohol, I decided to leave this for another day. I finally arrived in Tarves, a tiny village to the west of Aberdeen, where I had arranged to stay with my old friends, a family of Scottish teddies.  

Staying with Friends

We hadn’t seen each other for a long time. We had an excellent dinner of local meat, washed down with red wine and then whisky, and exchanged seven years’ worth of stories.

Tackling the West Coast – Day 2

Today I planned to finish the NC500 route. First, the road led to Inverewe,  where a beautiful garden has been created in Scotland’s far north. It is home to some sub-tropical plant species, that can survive because the Gulf Stream keeps the climate surprisingly mild in winter.  The designers of Inverewe also had the idea of using a forest of Scots Pine to provide protection from the strong, cold Scottish winds.  In addition to exotic plants from Australia and South Africa and other far-flung places, Inverewe also has traditional Scottish plants like rhododendrons and azaleas, which were just starting to bloom.  I spent a happy hour wandering around, and then found a discrete corner to have sandwiches for lunch – I wasn’t sure if picnics were allowed in the gardens.

Different aspects of the gardens at Inverewe

From Inverewe, the road again became narrow, with spectacular views of the sea.

I often had to squeeze past other cars and thought that it was good to be driving the NC500 in May – in high season, the road might be too busy to enjoy. At Kinlochewe, the NC500 turned off down the Torridon valley, with more mountains……… and an unexpected friend standing right by the side of the road, unperturbed by passing cars.

The Torridon valley
A surprise meeting

Form Torridon the road climbed  back into the mountains, where I met more friends.

Brave, aren’t I?

Then I descended into Applecross, a pretty village by the sea with a very good restaurant, where I stopped for afternoon coffee. From there.  I drove up and back down the steep Bealach na BĂ  pass, with its nerve-jangling hairpins bends and far-reaching views.

On top of the pass….
On the way back down…..

Next the road followed the side of Loch Carron….

…before reaching a place called New Kelso where I had first started the NC500 over 500 miles and three days earlier.  I had done it! 

Back to where I started!

The rest of the day was easy. I travelled back towards the Kyle of Lochalsh on a road I had already driven once. It looked very different in the sun, particularly Eilean Donan Castle.

Eilean Donan – in the sun this time !

I passed the Five Sisters again, driving east rather than west this time, before reaching Invergary, where I had booked a room in the Glengarry Castle Hotel as a special treat. Nearing my destination at the end of another long day, I met with one last surprise – the old bridge leading to the hotel had collapsed.

I soon found the other way to reach the hotel , checked in, and had an excellent dinner, after which I drank coffee and wrote my blog in the “morning room”, enjoying the ambience of staying in a real Scottish castle.

Glengarry Castle Hotel
The Glengarry Castle Hotel
The view from my room

It had been another long day’s driving, but I had completed my mission. The car was still intact, although the wheels and suspension had been through a serious workout.  I had hundreds of photos and even more memories of the NC500 – possibly the best road trip in the world.

Tackling the West Coast – Day 1

Today I set off at half past nine for the first part of the west coast section of the NC500.  At first the scenery was similar to the day before…..

Early in the day – north coast scenery

…….. but then the mountains grew higher and the coastline more rugged, and I found making short stops every few miles to take photos of the breathtaking views.

Heading west – the scenery and weather began to change

I made a longer stop at Smoo Cave, where an underground river emerged from the cave it had carved in the rock and flowed out to the sea along a deep gorge.

Smoo Cave

Inside the cave, the river formed a powerful waterfall.

The waterfall in Smoo Cave

I drove on, through increasingly beautiful scenery and through tiny villages with strange names – Tonuge, Achuvoldrag, Hope, Sangobeg, Badcall….. Each consisted of just a few modest houses.  Given the absence of people I was amused to find this sign on the side of the road:

One of the world’s most useless road signs….

The  road became more and more narrow and winding, the mountains became higher and higher, and the scenery more and more impressive.  

A picture is worth a thousand words….

At the pretty town of Lochinver, I took an optional detour along a road nicknamed by the locals as the “Wee Mad Road”, famous for its twists and turns.  It was getting late, and on checking my hotel booking I saw that they requested guests to check in by eight o’clock. I tried to call the hotel, but there was no phone reception.  Accommodation along the NC500 is limited and hard to book, so I was worried my room would be given to someone else if I was late.  My satnav showed I would just make it if I drove without stopping, so I accelerated as best I could along the tiny road. I encountered hazards that included a motorist who had stupidly attempted the road with a caravan, and a herd of unguarded cows nonchalantly taking an evening stroll along the road.

Finally the “Wee Mad Road” merged into a larger, straighter road running alongside Loch Bad a’Gaill, in a region called  the Coigach.  The steep mountains surrounding the loch were bathed in a soft, orange evening light, making this section of road the most beautiful of all.  

I reached Ullapool, the biggest town in the region, and regained phoned reception  – but found that my hotel’s phone did not work. So I pressed on inland along the wide, two-lane A835. The land opened up, with views stretching to snow-frosted mountains in the distance.  I sped through this beautiful scenery in  the evening sun, happy that I could finally put my foot on the accelerator, and reached my hotel just before eight. 

The Aultguish Inn – an old Drovers’ Inn

It was a former drovers’ inn (where people herding cattle over long distances would stay to rest)  and served a huge, excellent dinner of chicken with haggis, which I washed down with a pint of beer.

There had been lots of tricky driving, but it had been an excellent day. My only regret was having to rush through the best part of the road. I had only had time to stop to take one photo in the Coigach to share with my blog readers:

My only photo of the Coigach

The rest of the Coigach scenery remains as vivid images in my memory and a feeling of space and freedom in my heart.  I will be back.

Starting the NC500

A big part of my planned Scotland itinerary was driving the NC500 – the North Coast 500, a five hundred mile route that circles the far north of Scotland.  My original plan was to drive clockwise, visiting the spectacular western coastline first, but today heavy rain had been forecast so I changed my hotel bookings to travel anti-clockwise instead. 

The NC500

My new route involved a very long drive from Skye all the way across Scotland, up the east coast to the far north eastern tip at John O’Groats, and then back west to Bettyhill, a small town on the north coast.  My new plan would involve driving a short stretch of the route twice, but would allow me to see the west coast in the sunshine and would save the best scenery for last.

I set off in the rain, crossing the bridge from Skye back to the mainland and then stopping briefly at Plockton, a pretty little village by the sea, where the film The Wicker Man was shot.  It even stopped raining briefly for my visit.

A rather wet Plockton harbour

Form there I drove along the banks of Loch Carron,  a very pretty road even in the rain.

Loch Carron

Then I reached the start of the NC500 at new Kelso.  The route is well-marked by little brown signs:

The road across to Scotland’s east coast first wound through pretty forests, with groves of rhododendron trees that were just starting to flower

The road then crossed wild, desolate country before reaching the more densely populated east coast, with rolling green countryside and pretty villages. I stopped briefly for coffee and a scone in Strathpeffer, a pretty spa town built in Victorian times.  From there the NC500 route joined the main A9 road following the east coast of Scotland and I soon reached Dunrobin Castle, ancestral home of the Earls of Sutherland.

Dunrobin Castle

I was very lucky – as soon as I left the car, it stopped raining, and I could enjoy a display of falconry in the castle’s grounds.  I learnt the difference between a falcon and hawk, watching the birds swoop for pieces of fresh meat offered by the falconer. The falcons prey on other birds, swooping down at over 200mph to knock their victims out of the sky, whilst the hawks attack ground targets like rabbits or pheasants.

A magnificent falcon

After the display, there was an opportunity to have your photo taken with the birds, but since I am roughly the size of a small rabbit I didn’t want to take the risk and instead ducked into the castle’s interesting museum, which was stuffed with small items relating the history of the Sutherlands…….and hundreds of trophies from the dynasty’s hunting exhibitions around the world. If something moved, a Duke of Sutherland would shoot it. Amongst other victims, there were elephants, crocodiles, antelopes and a leopard. I was glad that bears seemed to have escaped the attention of the trigger-happy family.

The museum at Dunrobin Castle

Next I visited the castle itself. It was huge, with lots of reception and living rooms, and very interesting.  I particularly liked the nursery, where I met a friend.

The study with another of the Earls’ victims
The nursery and a friend!

After my visit of the inside, the sun was finally started to emerge, and I visited the gardens to take more photos.

Very happy with my exploration of Dunrobin, I continued north along the A9, though Wick (an interesting but poor-looking town built out of dark grey granite), then branching off to John O’Groats – the extreme north east tip of mainland Britain.  It was finally sunny again, and over the sea I could see the coast of Orkney Islands, which made me dream of future voyages.

John O’Groats with the Orkney Islands in the distance

The NC500 then headed west, along Scotland’s north coast.  After the town of Thurso, the countryside became increasingly wild – flat and almost uninhabited. It contrasted starkly to the towering mountains of Skye and the west coast. I drove on, enjoying the evening light and stretches of fast road, too hypnotised by the barren beauty to stop to take many photos.

The wild beauty of the north coast

I finally arrived at Bettyhill at around eight in the evening.  I had been on the road for nearly twelve hours and had covered a big chunk of Scotland.  Despite the rain, I had enjoyed the day and was now perfectly positioned to tackle the narrow, winding roads of the west coast over two days of promised sunshine – if for once the weather forecast could be trusted.

Skye under typical Scottish weather

Today the weather forecast was for overcast conditions in the morning and rain in the afternoon, and for once it turned out to be accurate.  I decided to do a short walk in the morning around the Fairy Pools, a series of coloured rock pools formed by a river running off the Cullin Hills.  These hills are famous for their tough walking and mountaineering challenges, but my walk was described as a gentle introduction to the area. The overcast weather gave Skye a totally different feel – brooding, savage and intimidating. 

The brooding Cullin Hills

The Fairy Pools is one of the most popular walks on Skye, but I found it slightly disappointing after the wonders of the Quiraing the day before.  Still, I took some interesting photos and managed to complete a short circuit in a couple of hours without getting too wet.

A few photos from the Fairy Pools walk

From the Cullin Hills I headed up to the far north west of Skye to visit Dunvegan castle, ancestral home of the head of the McCleod clan. Unlike the walk, the castle exceeded my expectations. It was surrounded by pretty gardens, and the interior was tastefully decorated, intimate, and felt like somewhere that would actually be pleasant to live in – unlike most other castles I have visited on my travels.

Bluebells in the castle’s gardens
Dunvegan Castle – grey and forbidding on the outside……
….. and stylish and comfortable on the inside

After the castle, I made an impromptu decision to explore a market scenic drive leading to the north west tip of Skye.  I finally ended up at a place called Neist Point, where great cliffs crash into the Atlantic Ocean.  The rain was now coming down hard, driven by strong winds coming directly from the sea, so I decided against trying the well-known walk to the lighthouse and contented myself with a couple of quickly taken photos from outside the car.

Scenery around Neist Point

I got back to my hotel in the early evening. It hadn’t been the most exciting day in Scotland, but had still had its moments.  You shouldn’t come to Scotland if you cannot put up with an occasional rainy day. “There is no light without darkness”* –  rainy weather helps you appreciate the sunshine better.

*borrowed from the Master and Margarita by Bulgakov

A Busy Day on Skye

Today was one of those rare traveller’s days when everything works perfectly, and the only surprises are pleasant ones. I had breakfast (typically Scottish – smoked haddock with poached egg) early because the weather forecast was for sun in the morning followed by rain in the afternoon.  I then headed straight off through Portree to the north-east tip of the island; I planned to do the popular Old Man of Storr hike in the morning and then drive around the island in the afternoon. On leaving Portree, the countryside immediately became very wild.  I could soon see the range of rocks which contained the single tower called the Old Man of Storr in the distance, and before I knew it, I had parked the car and was hiking uphill. The higher I climbed, the better the views became.

On the way to conquering the Old Man of Storr
The Old Man seen from below

I arrived at a junction from where several trails branched off. I thought I could see the path up to the Old Man, but after setting off I soon realised that I was wrong.  The path was extremely steep, and there were few firm footholds in the loose soil.  I dropped onto all fours (a natural position for a bear) but still struggled.  When I put my weight on a seemingly solid rock, it would come loose and clatter downhill.  On one such occasion I caused a small rockslide and looked on worried as smaller rocks nudged bigger rocks into motion.  The bouncing mass of rocks headed towards a female human who had been unwise enough to follow me up the slope.  She got of the way of the biggest rocks just in time, but was struck a glancing blow on the ankle by one of the smaller stragglers.  I checked that she was OK before heading on up and reaching the summit, where I finally saw the path that I should have taken.  I stopped to photograph the other pillars making up this spectacular rock formation and admire the view of the ocean. In the distance, on the Scottish mainland across the sea, rose range upon range of mountains; the tallest ones in the far distance were still sprinkled with snow. I knew that in a few days’ time I would driving through this region and felt a shudder of anticipation.

View from the Old Man
View from the top – over Raasay island to the Scottish mainland

I regained my car and continued driving north.  The sun was still shining brightly as I easily found the Lealt falls and Kilt Rock view points on the main road for yet more brilliant views.

Near Lealt Falls
Kilt Rock

The road continued to the small town of Staffin, before narrowing and winding its way around the far norther of the island, past small farms and isolated beaches.  I stopped at one beach for a sandwich lunch. 

Skye’s north coast

Then I carried on around the north coast until I reached the small town of Uig, one of the main arrival points for ferries to Skye.

A ferry leave Uig

Near Uig, I found a tiny side road leading back into the hills, to the “Fairy Glen” – a pretty valley with many odd conical, grass covered mounds that legend says were made by fairies.  

At the Fairy Glen

I spent a pleasant hour exploring the valley before heading on again, along another small mountain road, to the Quiraing, a spectacular rock formation formed when  a landslide destroyed the side of one of Skye’s mountains.  

The Quiraing from a distance

The sun was still shining brightly, so I set off on a circular walk that initially led between the remains of the mountain on the left and many strange pillars and spires left by the landslide on the right.  The views in all directions were jaw-dropping – whether out over the sea to neighbouring islands, or back across the bright green hills of Skye, or up to the mountain towering over me.  

Epic views – to the south, back over Skye
Epic views – looking up at the mountain
Epic views – looking out to see

The path then turned back on itself and rose sharply up to the summit, for more amazing views.

More amazing views from the top

The walk took me two and a half hours and it was now early evening. I had thoroughly explored the north-east corner of Skye and was very happy with my day – I had seen everything I planned to see, and had had the unexpected bonus of one of the most beautiful walks I had ever done.  I thought I had thoroughly earned my dinner back in the hotel.

A Quiet Day in Tobermory/from Mull to Skye

Today, I was feeling lazy after my race around Mull the day before.  A storm was forecast for the afternoon, so I decided to spend the morning making a short walk around Glengorm Castle, an imposing property near Tobermory, before shopping for cheese at a local farm.  I also bought some asparagus and venison salami.  I reserved the afternoon for enjoying my cottage and writing my blog. 

Glengorm Castle

The storm was forecast to last a whole 24 hours, and I was a bit worried that the ferries would be cancelled, and I would be unable to travel to Skye the next day as planned; Mull is completely dependent on its ferry services. But in the end the storm never materialised – it was a bit windier than usual in the afternoon, but from my window I could see that ferries were still sailing in the Sound of Mull. My trip to Skye would be OK.  The weather was even nice enough to venture outside for another look at picturesque Tobermory.

Tobermory

In the evening I cooked the two crabs that I had bought yesterday.  They were enormous, so I had one for dinner and made crab sandwiches with the other for my lunch the day after.

Too much for a small teddy

The next day I got up early to queue for the ferry from Tobermory to Kilchoan, a tiny village on the Scottish mainland.  The forecast storm had not arrived, and the crossing was uneventful.  The weather was cloudy with occasional rain, giving a completely different feel to Scotland – impressive and melancholy rather than pretty.  The route from Kilchoan was on a narrow, single track road.  First, it ran along a mighty loch with impressive views of distant mountains. I stopped for coffee and then for my crab sandwich lunch, enjoying the view.

On the road from Kilchoan to Fort William

Then the road skirted past Fort William and the might Ben Nevis mountain range, the highest in the UK. I stopped for a coffee in a castle that had been converted to a luxury hotel.  It had magnificent reception rooms, and also an impressive snooker room where trophies from the former castle owners’ hunting expeditions were displayed. I was sorry for the deer that had been shot, but relieved that there were no bears amongst the victims. BTW I found a very cool and useful site full of information for next time when I will have time to climb Ben Nevis.

Coffee Stopover

The road continued through the impressive Glen Shiel valley, guarded by the might “five sisters” mountains.

Some of the “Five Sisters”

It then reached the sea, to reveal the beautiful castle of Eilean Donan, sitting alone on its own island in Loch Duich. 

Eilean Donan Castle (shame about the rain)

Finally, I crossed over the bridge to Skye, to be met with brilliant evening sunshine.  The scenery suddenly looked very different – pretty and happy.

My first impression of Skye

I was very glad to reach my hotel at half past five after a long day’s driving– I had left the ferry at a quarter past ten, but had only managed just over 100 miles since then. Progress had been very slow, with coffee stops, photo stops, lunch and even a short snooze along the way.  I had dinner in the hotel and then a stroll around the hotel’s grounds and its golf course to catch the evening light.  With the warmth of the sun weakening, it was bitterly cold, but I managed to take a couple of last photos for the day before hurrying inside to bed.

  Sunset over the loch in Skye

A rally around Mull

Today I had a simple plan – to explore the small coastal roads on the west of Mull,  before reaching the port of Fionnphort, from where I had booked a boat trip to Staffa Island, with its famous Fingal’s Cave.

I set off early, aiming to have about an hour free for a leisurely lunch before the boat trip started at 12.15.  The coast road was pretty, very narrow, and very wild. I stopped several times to take photos. 

Driving along the west coast of Mull
Calgary beach on Mull’s north west coast

There was very little traffic, but after an hour, I met a large 4×4 coming the other way and ducked into a passing place to let him past me.  The driver stopped alongside me and told me that the road ahead was closed for roadworks, and would remain closed for over an hour, and that he had decided it would be quicker to turn around and try another route.  He asked me where I was headed and raised his eyebrows when I told him Fionnphort – it was obviously no longer easy to get there.  After a bit of thinking he advised a route through somewhere called Dervaig and reconnecting with the main road that skirted around the east of the island. 

I considered my options quickly.  If I carried on, I would probably be late for my boat – but I might have a chance if the roadworks were quicker than the man had said.  On the other hand, I had no idea how long the new route would take – there was no phone connection and so no chance to judge the time on Google Maps.  My car’s Satnav was also useless – it refused to consider any option other than the way I had been going. All the same, I decided to take a chance with the huge detour that had been recommended.  After fifteen minutes I found the junction for Dervaig, and regained phone connection.  Google estimated my ETA at Fionnphort as 12.20 – five minutes late, and the satnav had now also recalculated the route with an arrival time of 12.15.   I might make it!   I put my paw to the floor and hurtled along the tiny road leading through Dervaig, grimacing as the car wheels hit potholes or the bottom of the car scraped on the surface of the road.  

Google and Satnav gave continuing feedback on my efforts by adjusting their arrival times; I was pleased that I was keeping up with their schedule and convinced that I could make up some time when the road got better. From the minor road through Dervaig I reached the main coastal road and then branched off into the mountains.  The road cut through spectacular mountain scenery, but I was too busy driving to appreciate it, never mind stop to take photos.  It started to rain hard, and I wondered if I really wanted to do the boat trip after all.  Finally, the road left the mountains and ran along the south coast of the island. The traffic got heavier, and more and more often I was stuck behind slower vehicles or having to stop in passing spaces to let oncoming cars go past.  Google’s ETA edged up – 12.21, 12.23, 12.24…. 

I stopped to call the tour operator and told them I would be about 10 minutes late.  They were very relaxed and said they would wait for me.  The very last stretch of road was even busier, with roadworks being the next hazard to be overcome.  I finally arrived at Fionnphort at 12.34 – 20 minutes late.  I grabbed the parking space closest to the jetty (normally reserved for buses), decided not to waste time buying a parking ticket, and ran to find the captain of our boat waiting patiently for me, and a large group of more agitated tourists.  I gasped some apologies and jumped aboard, hiding in the cabin to conceal my embarrassment whilst the other tourists enjoyed the fresh air on deck.

Fortunately, the weather had turned sunny and soon everyone was in a good mood again. First, the boat met with a group of seals sunning themselves on a rock………..

Seals near Fionnphort

……before reaching spectacular Staffa Island after 30 minutes’ sailing, with its dark basalt rocks rising vertically from the sea. There is a legend that hexagonal blocks that make up the island were laid by a giant, who built a bridge between Ireland and Scotland that also included Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. In reality the hexagonal blocks in both places are the result of molten lava cooling after the same huge volcanic eruption 60 million years ago.

Staffa Island

The boat positioned itself so that we could see the famous Fingal’s Cave, where the sea has eroded the blocks to form a spectacular cavern.

The entrance to Fingal’s Cave

Next, the boat moored on the island and the captain gave us an hour to look around.  I headed straight to the cave, beating the rush of the other passengers and taking more photos.

Inside Fingal’s Cave

After that, I headed off to visit the puffin breeding colony on the other side of the island.  When I arrived, the puffins were all bobbing up and down on the surface of the sea, far below the cliffs where expectant tourists were waiting.   I sat and waited, admiring the beautiful views and enjoying the warm sun.

Scenic Staffa Island

Eventually my patience was rewarded, as the birds started to fly back to their nesting grounds. They avoided people, but since I was small, they didn’t seem to be afraid of me, so I could get a really close look.

The puffins arrive and start to play

Finally, it was time to go. I took a few more photos of the beautiful patterns of the rock that makes up the island, and then boarded the boat.

Staffa Island’s strange hexagonal rocks

Whilst sailing back we got an unexpected treat when a school of dolphins decided to swim with us. 

Dolphins following our boat

The tour ended at Iona, a small island just opposite Fionnphort. At the harbour I was met by a fisherman whom I had called the day before to order fresh lobster and crab.  He showed me two live medium sized lobsters and two very large live crabs, which he then placed in a container for me to pick up when I was ready to leave the island.

Iona is famous as the place were St Columba landed in Scotland in AD 563. He set up a monastery that became the base from which Scotland was converted to Christianity. The abbey was destroyed by Vikings and rebuilt, only to fall into ruin after the Scottish Reformation in the 16th Century. It was rebuilt again in 1938.

Iona Abbey

Iona is supposed to have a special, spiritual feel and to be a great place for exploring on foot.  But I was tired after all the excitement of the boat excursion and hungry, having missed my lunch. I bought a couple scones and ate them admiring the restored abbey, before picking up my seafood and taking the short ferry ride back to Fionnphort.  I was relieved that my car had not received a parking ticket, and slowly drove back to Tobermory.

Fresh lobster for dinner, then I collapsed into bed, exhausted.

Dinner before…….
…and after

North, North and North again – the long trip to Scotland

The Bear is Back!

It has been six long months since my last blog (Madeira in November 2000). I was itching to get back on the road again, and as soon as the UK’s Covid restrictions were partially lifted I was off. This time I am visiting Scotland.  This is a place that has been on my “must visit” list for many years, but I always told myself I could leave it for later, when, as an older bear, I wouldn’t be so confident traveling around places like Iran or Kyrgyzstan.  

This year I had no excuse to postpone my Scotland trip any longer. As a British bear, it is one of the few places to which I am allowed to go, May is the best time visit (before the ferocious midges start biting in June) and – rarity of rarities – the weather forecast was good.  What’s more, I have some Scottish blood from distant ancestors who lived in the Scottish Highlands when bears roamed free there. My family has its own tartan and I even have my own kilt.

I plan to drive up from London and see the Scottish islands and the far North, avoiding the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow which can be more conveniently reached by train (for a next visit).  Remembering just how long the UK is, I decided to stop over in Penrith, just before the border in the far north of England, on the way up; probably I will also stop somewhere on the way back.

On my first day I drove up from London without incident, through industrial Birmingham and past Manchester until I reached the Lake District.  There I decided to do some sightseeing and avoid the monotony of the motorway.  My first stop was the pretty castle of Sizergh, which is more than 800 years old and has the home of the Strickland family for its entire existence.

Sizergh Castle

The castle itself was not open for visiting, but it has beautiful gardens set out in a range of styles including a Japanese-style garden…..

The Japanese Garden

……..and a beautiful orchard.

From Sizergh I drove to Kendal, a town well-known for being the gateway to the Lake District. Although Kendal must once have been a pretty market town and still had many nice old buildings, what struck me most was how poor the place looked – every third shop was a bargain discounter, and every fourth a charity shop.  The remainder were cheap restaurants, the now ubiquitous barber shops, or simply closed and boarded up – unable to survive Covid on top of Amazon’s onslaught. Though disappointed by Kendal, my route did allow me to take an extremely scenic backroad to Penrith.  It was well off the beaten path – maybe because there were no famous lakes in this part of the Lake District – but still a really beautiful drive.

On the road from Kendal to Penrith

I arrived in Penrith in the late afternoon and found the small hotel I had booked for a quick overnight stay.  After a short rest to get over my drive, I headed to explore the town.  It was a pretty place, with nice old buildings and a ruined castle.

Penrith Castle

I had dinner in a pub. It was the day that the Covid restrictions were lifted, and the time people could eat and drink inside pubs for six months, so there was a cheerful, busy atmosphere.

My first pint inside a pub since November 2020!

The next day I continued the long journey up to Scotland.  I crossed the border shortly after departure and reached Glasgow in a couple of hours. After another thirty minutes negotiating the ugly web of motorways surrounding Glasgow, I was in the picturesque Trossachs national park, driving along the side of Loch Lomond.  I made a quick stop in Luss, a pretty village on the side of the loch, to stretch my legs and have lunch.  

Loch Lomond
The Church at Luss

The road continued north through increasingly wild and beautiful scenery to Oban, where I had a place booked on the ferry to Mull. It was good weather for driving, with a mix of sun, cloud and light rain that brought out the different colours of the vegetation.

On the road to Oban

Arriving at Oban. I just had time to buy some fresh scallops and crab from the fish shop next to the terminal before boarding my ferry.

The ferry made its way slowly through the Sound of Mull, threading its way through dozens of small islands, some inhabited, some completely wild.  I stayed out on deck taking in the magnificent scenery, despite the occasional spot of rain – and was rewarded with the beautiful sight of a rainbow low down on the sea behind a lighthouse.

Oban from the boat
Lighthouse, rainbow and the world’s most traveled bear

I arrived on the island of Mull into brilliant sunshine and drove the remaining thirty miles to the cottage I had rented in Tobermory.  In places the road was single track – if you meet a car coming the other way, one of you needs to pull into a passing space to let the other driver past.  There are lots of such passing spaces, and the locals are very familiar with this style of driving and wave you through with a cheery smile. The short road gave stunning views of the sea and the Scottish mainland around the channel, with the bright sunshine bringing out the yellows, greens and reds of the countryside.  

On the road to Tobermory

The beautiful fishing town of Tobermory was also bathed in early evening sunlight when I arrived.

Tobermory

I checked into my cottage, which was perched on a steep hill above the harbour with an amazing view of the bay. 

The view from my living room

Even though it was getting late, the sun was still high in the sky – Tobermory is roughly the same latitude as Moscow and the days are very long in May.  I took the opportunity of the glorious evening sunshine to take a short walk to the lighthouse, taking lots more photos on the way. 

Yet more stunning Scottish scenery

Fresh scallops for dinner, then I fell into bed, a tired but happy bear.

Farewell to Madeira

Today was my last full day on Madeira and I decided to explore Funchal. Although I had been staying there a few days already, I had been busy with all-day trips outside of the city and had not ventured out of the old quarter, where my flat was located. I started with taking the cable car to Monte, a suburb high up in the mountains behind the city, to visit the Monte Palace Gardens, one of Madeira’s main tourist attractions. I bought a combination ticket for cable car and “gardens” at the ticket office and enjoyed interesting views over the city on the long ride up.

In the cable car to Monte

When I got to the top, I found that my combination ticket was not for the Monte Palace Gardens, whose entrance was right next to the cable car station, but for the official city Botanical Gardens.  To reach the latter required me to take another cable car going half-way back down the mountain.  My annoyance quickly passed as I explored a series of very interesting displays of Madeira’s plant life and enjoyed coffee and cake on a terrace looking out over Funchal to the sea. I particularly enjoyed the huge cacti and the dragon trees. An added bonus was that I had the place almost entirely to myself.

Topiary in the Botanical Gardens
Huge cacti…

From the Botanical Gardens, I returned to the centre of Funchal to explore the city.  It had a nice laid-back feeling, many old buildings and very few tourists.  There were no real “must visit” places that would feature in lists of “1000 things to see before you die”, but the city centre was pretty and a pleasant place just to stroll around for a few hours. There were lots of small shops, gardens, and public squares.  

A Square in Funchal
Pretty Old Buildings and the Cathedral

My route took in a museum set in the house of Zarco, the city founder, and the cathedral.  It ended with Madeira wine tasting at Blandy’s wine merchants, where I discovered that in addition to the sweet Madeira that is popular in the UK, there were also semi-dry and dry varieties.  Even the dry one tasted sweet to me, just less so than the others.  But I like Madeira wine, so it was a great way to end my stroll.

Madeira Wine Tasting (the end of…. hic!)

The evening I had dinner in the open air at the restaurant in the old fort directly in front of my house.  The food and service were excellent. I took the option of the wine set. In London this would involve precisely measured rations of each wine, but here the staff filled up my glasses whenever they were half full.  As the evening progressed, a bright full moon rose over the battlements of the fort and bathed the courtyard in soft light.  The evening was perfect and helped me forget for a moment that I had to return to London’s rain and Covid the next day.

Funchal in Ocober
…….London in October

I left Madeira after nearly two weeks with a desire to come back.  There were some things I hadn’t managed to do during my visit – like the walk on my first day that got rained off, or the Monte Palace Gardens.  But most of all it would be nice to stay in Funchal, chill out in the sun and  do some swimming or diving  whilst everyone back home is shivering with the onset of winter.

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