A coast-to-coast motorhome tour of Scotland
We visit the Highlands of Scotland every year. It ticks all the boxes: beautiful scenery, excellent walking and opportunities to see wildlife around almost every corner.
As natural as it appears, I have become aware that it is not untouched by human hands. The land is maintained through management and conservation; from the heather moorland managed for grouse to the re-introduction of extinct species such as beavers and red kite.
The bottlenose dolphin population in northeast Scotland is a good example of successful conservation. The Moray Firth has been protected since the 1980s following campaigns by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) charity and others. Since then, the number of dolphins has increased. Seeing these lovely animals is now a holiday treat for many visitors.
Fortuitously, nature has provided a natural viewing platform for dolphin watching: Chanonry Point. This mile-long spit of sand and shingle sticks out into the Moray Firth and allows anyone to enjoy watching dolphins without boarding a boat.
Stand on the pebbly beach at the end, with the tide lapping at your feet, and you can watch dolphins in their natural environment only a few feet away while you stay on dry land.
The point is attached to the mainland between Fortrose and Rosemarkie, two pretty villages on the Black Isle. This is a peninsula, not an island, just northeast of Inverness. Our destination was the Camping and Caravanning Club campsite at Rosemarkie, about 20 minutes’ walk from this dolphin-watching heaven.
The first stop of the day was to join the small crowd at the end of the point to watch the dolphins leaping and breaching as they fish, with a backdrop of the dramatic fortifications of Fort George on the opposite shoreline. When we tore ourselves away, we followed the coast to Fortrose, keeping a eye out for otters as we walked.
Built from rich red sandstone and set in a peaceful park, it is worth visiting the ruined cathedral in Fortrose. This is managed by Historic Scotland and is free to visit.
Fortrose has cafés and restaurants, most notably The Anderson, a cosy pub with excellent food, real ale and an inviting ambience. However, we had picnicked at Chanonry Point so only stopped for coffee before picking up the old railway line.
The line rises gently through woods for two miles, providing a traffic-free route to Avoch, another charming village with a fishing heritage. The land rises steeply out of Avoch and, on the quiet lane through Knockmuir, we enjoyed glorious views out to sea. The singing of yellowhammers and skylarks accompanied us back to Fortrose.
Walking in the other direction from the campsite took us along the shore to Rosemarkie, where we picked up a route through the wooded Fairy Glen, an RSPB reserve. A path follows the fast-flowing stream through the peaceful steep-sided valley. We spotted a dipper flitting from rock to rock before passing two lively waterfalls, taking the steep steps up to the main road.
A red kite circled above our heads, its beautiful colours picked out by the sun. These handsome raptors were successfully re-introduced to the area in the early 90s. We also spotted peacock butterflies flitting around the hedges as we continued uphill. Our strenuous efforts were rewarded with an extensive view of Chanonry Point below.
Although watching the dolphins at Chanonry Point is difficult to beat, we treated ourselves to an EcoVentures boat tour to see dolphins and some of the cliff-nesting sea birds. EcoVentures is based in Cromarty, another lovely fishing village at the end of The Black Isle.
The company is an accredited operator in the Dolphin Space Programme, ensuring minimal disturbance of the wildlife. A rigid inflatable boat takes up to 12 people, offering a flexible two-hour trip around the Cromarty and Moray Firths.
The weather had turned cooler for our trip and we were glad of the waterproof suits EcoVentures provided to keep us warm and dry. The tour took us searching around the old oil platforms in the Cromarty Firth, all awaiting repair or resale. I found them slightly spooky as they emerged from the faint coastal fog. Seals sometimes use the floating platforms for basking.
The advantage of the inflatable is that it can motor quickly to cover the distance, but is almost silent when you stop to watch the wildlife. So, we were able to enjoy watching the bottlenose dolphins without feeling we were intruding. We saw guillemots, kittiwakes and razorbills, both on the cliffs and skimming low across the water and spent some time among a large group of excited and acrobatic gannets.
We had driven to Cromarty, although you can take the bus from Rosemarkie, so were able to visit the RSPB bird hide west of Jemimaville on the B9163. Udale Bay is?
It's a feeding ground for over-wintering migrants. Some of the wildfowl were still around and we saw a large flock of pink-footed geese, as well as individual wigeon, shelduck, curlew, lapwings and redshank.
Flexibility is one of the things we enjoy about holidays in our ’van. The weather had become cloudy, so we were enticed away by the chance of sunshine on the west coast. Ullapool is only 60 miles from Rosemarkie, but is a very different face of Scotland to the green, cultivated land of the Black Isle.
The journey is a beautiful one on good roads and through stunning wild country of heathery mountains and sombre lochs. We broke for a brew to take in the scenery, before stopping at Corrieshalloch Gorge, where the National Trust for Scotland has made many improvements since our first visit over 30 years ago. Well-made paths, a suspension bridge and viewing platforms that hang over the gorge have been created. A 30-minute circular walk offers various opportunities to peer into the dramatic, narrow and steep-sided gorge cut by glacial meltwater thousands of years ago.
The delightful view down Loch Broom, with Ullapool’s white-painted houses dazzling in the sunshine, takes your breath away and we paused to absorb it before the final few miles to our destination. The campsite, Broomfield Holiday Park, is in the centre of Ullapool, on the shore of Loch Broom. We’d soon pitched, brewed up and were enjoying the scenery.
Ullapool was founded as a fishing port in 1788 and designed by Thomas Telford. The grid pattern of streets and attractive line of houses along the loch and harbour are a conservation area to preserve the distinctive character, while maintaining a vigorous and dynamic ambience, as Ullapool is both charming and a lively working port.
An excellent place from which to see Ullapool is Ullapool Hill. This two-mile walk follows a steep, narrow path through woodland and vibrant yellow gorse bushes with beautiful views over the town and loch. Pick up the path after the petrol station on the A835 out of Ullapool, between the Royal Hotel and the War Memorial. If you continue on the path you emerge on the quarry road, taking you back to the town.
This earned us refreshments at another favourite watering hole, The Ceilidh Place, which was opened in 1970 by the actor, Robert Urquhart, as a place to eat, converse and sing. It now serves a full range of food, as well as running a bookshop and gallery.
This is an extract of one of the many excellent motorhome travel features that appear in the October 2014 issue of MMM magazine – Briatin's best-selling motorhome magazine for the past 47 years.
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