West Coast Here We Come … June 26th - July 20th!

October 28, 2013  •  4 Comments

Pauline has been talking about a return trip up the West Coast of Scotland for as long as I have known her! Her first and to date, only jaunt to ‘the top’ was in 1976, so a return was long overdue. The main obstacle to a repeat was of course work (funny how it always interferes with life!) If this trip was worth doing it was worth doing well and not just a whistle-stop one or two week mad dash. So plans were laid following my redundancy in autumn 2012 and after much preparation and packing here we were June 27th 2013 setting out from home at 7.15am …

We took an hour and 15 mins to restock our big bird table at the caravan on the way and shop for Calor Gaz and ‘Loo Blue’. A further 48 min loo and brew stop at Abbington Services was taken, before arriving at the chippie in Aviemore for tea! We lost a further 15 mins to another loo stop and a phonecall near Tore, before arriving for the night at Ardmair near Ullapool at 20.50 hours. It had been an easy journey undertaken steadily and Pauline was delighted that the first bird we saw flying around the camp site was a Great Skua! And the second was an Oystercatcher on eggs just over the fence right next to where everyone was walking! A promising start and so to bed – the tour had begun!

Fri 28th June ...

The next morning dawned to rain and southerly gales … We set off for a leisurely run up to Scourie. The grass verges were full of flowers especially orchirds: Northern Marsh, Western Marsh, Heath Spotted and Greater Butterfly Orchids and a beautiful Dark Green Fritilary Butterfly as the skies cleared and hot sun came out!

 

Pauline says: … ‘I was really excited to be getting past Ardmair especially when the ‘hills’ I so well remembered of Ben Mor Coigach, Stac Pollaidh, Cul Mor, Suilven and Canisp came into view! It was actually a short-lived view as the rain returned and made mist and the mountain tops disappeared, swiftly followed by the bottoms of the hills and then the middle distance went as well and it would soon be ‘can’t see hand in front of face’ time at this rate! Later in the tour I found that the mountain which fascinated me this time was Quinag. I don’t remember seeing it 1976 and actually I didn’t, instead missing the Kylestrome Ferry road out to reach Scourie via Lairg and Loch Shin to avoid using the ferry. The Kylescu Bridge then came out of thin air and was a surprise!’ …

Despite the weather and hardly stepping outside the van we had views of more Great Skua and several Red-throated Diver. From a viewpoint near Scourie we could see the end of Handa and a constant stream of sea birds coming and going off and onto the island: some of the dark shapes were obvious even at that distance yet more Great Skuas! The camera was pressed into use when two Twite came feeding around our pitch on the site at Scourie!

Sat 29th June ... 

A day later we had reached the ‘top’ of Britain at Sango Sands in Durness. We secured a pitch right on the cliff edge which when the bed was pulled out in the campervan brought one of the best ‘bedroom views’ of all time!  The constant southerly gales were making Pauline uneasy about being blown over the edge! They were also causing a problem with the grill and cooking bacon and eggs took an hour and 10 mins … we taped up the outside vents and the gas perked up!

Sun 30th June ... 

Having been told by another camper that there were Puffins viewable and photographable on the west side of Fariad Head I set off to walk and investigate while Pauline caught up with photo editing and ‘chatting’ on the email!  They were there but at a distance beyond which I regard as useful for decent pics.

Mon 1st July ... 

Pauline says: … ‘One of the main reasons I wanted to come back to the top coast was to see the Scottish Primrose and look at the Durness Limestone’.

With primrose in mind we set off for Balnakeil Bay following Colin Twists booklet advice that the golf course was the best place to find it … and eventually we did – a few leaves – a couple of tight buds a millimetre off the floor – nowhere near flowering … disaster: what now? The weather did that fickle thing yet again and the brilliant sunlight vanished, black clouds loomed,  the heavens opened and someone stuck a hosepipe through: we sat under our ponchos camera packs tucked under our knees trying to keep the worst off the camera gear. Miserable or what?

Pauline says: … ‘I spotted two new plants beside the road (which were hardly a consolation for the lack of primrose!) but interesting nonetheless: it didn’t take me long sat beside the road with flower book in hand to name both – Pearly Everlasting and Monks Rhubarb!’

We went back past the site and found we could drive onto the headland on the other side of the bay. Pauline wandered off without conviction still suffering the disappointment of no primrose! She perked up though when I shouted that I had found Mountain Avens with a few flowers on! We spent quite some time photographing these – still contending with a Force 7 gale! We took turns in photographing one flower that was partially sheltered by rocks and while I took my turn Pauline suddenly exclaimed ‘Stone Bramble!’ and got all excited … must be another of those she wanted to find!

Tue 2nd July ... 

We headed back to the Mountain Avens spot and had a wider mooch around before heading eastwards calling in at various spots that took our fancy. The final destination was Kyle of Tongue but the bright dry breezy start degraded down to yet more rain and Pauline took a photo of the view through the rain spotted window as a comment on the weather so far!

Wed 3rd July ... 

With the Scottish Primrose showing no signs of flowering there was nothing for it but to head back down the coast and head out further west to our next night stop at Clachtoll. I had done a lot of pre-planning and researching of camp sites in the months before setting off so we had a rough idea of which sites we wanted to stay at. Clachtoll brought us two plants – Purple Milk Vetch and Oysterplant that I had never seen and Pauline hadn’t seen for years and we put some time and effort into photographing them! Full marks to Jim the site owner for knowing he had these and protecting them by keeping sheep off the milk vetch and actually corralling the oysterplant in with boulders and covering with a door frame and grid weld mesh!

Thu 4th July ...

The wind was getting up again and frequent showers so we drove around the little peninsula to Stoer Lighthouse and had views of more skuas, some scoter and divers flying (being driven by the wind!) over the van. The ‘Relief of Mafaking’ came at teatime with the arrival of the fish and chip van on site – hot crispy fish and chips being a very welcome change from banana butties, chicken and lettuce butties, corned beef butties … chip buttie anyone?!

Fri 5th July ...

Dry start but still very windy. Pauline worked on the laptop again (least that’s what she said she was doing….) so I walked around site to photograph it and then mooched off to the little headland. I found Fragrant and Frog Orchids and saw Ringed Plover and Oystercatcher hanging agitatedly about probably they had well grown young close by. Out over the sea there were Gannets fishing. Later we set off south passing through a corner of the Inverpollaigh Nature Reserve area seeing RB Merganser, Weasel, Golden Plover, Oystercatchers and Ringed Plovers with big young. It was very windy, raining and rather vile ….

Sat 6th July ...

A dry start but still very windy so we decided to go south via Lochinver again and try to find something of interest in a sheltered place!

Pauline says: … ‘We stopped for a brew on a tree sheltered car park beside a small river and Ian found the fungus ‘Pocket Plum’ so called for its habit of parasitizing Prunus Spinosa – Blackthrorn. We spent some time photographing it and whilst  busy with this a chap came back to his car with rod and line and a beautiful 12lb plus salmon, which was going home for his tea - It made my mouth water!  I looked longingly at it and hoped he would offer it for sale … but he didn’t!

Sun 7th July ...

The day dawned dry with a bit of sun (at last!) and only a slight breeze and got brighter, warmer and less breezy so we made a break for Inchnadamph. Pauline has wanted to walk here for 45 years having been told by her old Biology teacher that Arctic/Alpine plants grow just 50ft up on the low limestone cliffs behind the hotel! Little white insignificant looking plants don’t whet my appetitive so I let Pauline go and begin climbing and searching while I chased after Linnet, Spotted Flycatcher, Chimney Sweeper Moths and Golden-ringed Dragonfly on the lower fields! On the way back past Loch Assynt we spotted a Black-throated Diver idling close in to a small headland. I decided to take the camera and chance my arm, creeping down the headland on the diver’s blind side. Rather obligingly it came past me as I sat in the bracken trying not to notice that the warmer conditions had pepped up the midges. I got bitten to blazes but I got black-throated images too ….

Pauline says: …. ‘Had the weather been better before this I might have managed more of a climb and a search at Inchnadamph but a bit is better than none at all! There was loads of Mountain Avens (now that we had already photographed it at Durness!) The find of the day for me was Holly Fern and I took my time over photographing it. If anything takes me back in future it will be this area.’

Mon 8th July ... 

A dry sunny warm start got us up and at it – but that activity was soon suspended with the morning brew when we found the fridge was not working on electric …. The milk was warm and two packs of 8 sausages had defrosted and had to be cooked and eaten for breakfast! Of all the spares we were carrying for every contingency, the one thing we hadn’t got were 3-pin plug fuses … its not something you really think about needing in a campervan, so the situation caught us out. We found out that there was a comprehensive hardware shop in Lochinver where we got fuses (and Pauline bought a new electric fan to replace the old one which after many years use had given up the will to live!). With fridge sorted and the low cold sea fog lifting we set off for Loch Assynt at 2.30pm in very hot sunny weather … this is more like it! The Black-throated was still in the same spot so I went creeping round the headland again and got some more shots in even better lighting!

Tue 9th July ...

With the pick up in the weather we set off north and went back to Scourie again this time arriving early enough in the morning to get a pitch overlooking the bay! Two separate black-throated were seen on other lochs as we travelled – one with a large young in tow close to the road. Pauline got shots of these from the roadside without needing to creep doubled up through the bracken … but the midges were out in force yet again!

We discovered the fridge was not working on electric yet again and swapping the fuses from the fridge to the kettle showed that neither fuse had blown. This brought us a brew and a puzzle? What could be wrong? There must be a fault or broken wiring somewhere? We resigned ourselves to the idea that for the following 5 weeks our diet would be powdered milk, stale bread, tinned stews, tinned fruit, beans on toast and err - lots of apples, grapes, sultanas, bananas and nuts …. Why does an image of Johnny Weismuller jump to mind …. ooOOOOooo … ArgGHHHHHH …. ooooOOOOoooo …. ?!!!

Wed 10th July ...

We had previously checked the sailings to Handa Island: the weather was gorgeous – it was now or never, so we turned up and got on the early boat. At the start of the walk we got decent photos of a juvenile Wheatear and a Wren! Pauline found some distant Arctic Skuas and had spotted a flight line which came over head and she lingered to take photos. I pushed on to the North West corner where I was told there was a small loch … it was bursting with bathing Great Skuas! I tried to phone Pauline but either there was no signal or she was busy with the camera already.

Pauline says: … ‘I stopped the first time because that was the closest I had been to skuas for 15 plus years and I couldn’t walk past! I didn’t get much by way of pics and wondered where everyone else was and were they doing better? Then a chap asked if I was Pauline – I said yes – he said your husband says to tell you to stop doing what you’re doing here and follow the path to the small lochan where there are dozens of skuas CLOSE! I said righto and thank you and tried to get a move on! The rest of the day passed in a blur of skua, fulmar and razorbill photography in heavenly weather and fabulous surroundings …

 

I ended up sat with my back to a hump on the cliff edge – looking over the hump revealed a straight drop to the beach of 80ft or more … as I was in the direct flight line of the skuas going out to sea after bathing and the fulmars were sweeping past so close I could have stuck out my hand and grabbed one – so despite the drop I stayed put!’

We have to think out of everything Handa Island was the highlight of this holiday journey. The weather was fabulous – it was suddenly too warm actually: the light for the camera and flight photography was spot on. It was just a marvellous experience ….

Arriving back on site at teatime I was cooking egg, gammon and beans when Pauline had an intuitive brainwave and decided the Duck Tape we had put over the outside vents and not removed when the gales dropped was, in the hot weather, overheating the fridge and stopping it working …. She went out and ripped it all off and hey presto – the fridge began cooling down and worked perfectly for the rest of the holiday! WE sat outside in our folding chairs later with a brew in warm sunshine, blue skies (no midges) and watched two Red-throated Divers in the bay below us and against a yellowing sunset sky we could see hundreds of seabirds coming and going out to sea from Handa … all was right with our world!

Thu 11th July ... 

Dry, sunny with a bit of a breeze: cold fresh milk in our morning brew and bacon sarnies for breakfast. Then we set off back up to the top coast at Sango Durness, got a pitch, put our sign out to claim it and went off back round to Balnakeil Bay. Once again we parked up and set off walking along the edge of the golf course. I walked to the far end of the course and found several tiny smiling open primrose flowers – minute and perfect! I hid one behind my foot and put on a solemn face as Pauline walked up and watched her face fall as she thought they were still not flowering … then I moved my foot a bit and grinned while watching her go into a little dance before lying down for a close look!!

We walked on along the headland after leaving the golf course behind and I found some Black Guillemots posing well within camera reach while Pauline chased butterflies and photographed Frog Orchids. In the evening we went to the restaurant next to the site feeling the sudden need for a proper cooked meal with no washing up after and ordered fish and chips, peas, carrots and salad. I had a banana split after while Pauline broke the rules and had a knickerbocker glory!

Fri 12th July ...

With the required species found, admired and photographed it was time to start back down the coast as in 9 mornings time we had to be on the dock, in the ferry queue at Uig on Skye for the booked sailing to Loch Maddy on North Uist. We saw an otter below the Kylesku Bridge which had vanished when we got down in the village. There were two Black-throated Divers in Loch Awe. But after a bit of ‘toing and froing’ we arrived back at Ardmair late afternoon. We had fish and chips again for tea this time in Ullapool before returning to site and bed.

Sat 13th July ...

We left Ullapool and went past Loch Broom. Round past An Teallach and Little Loch Broom to Gruinard Bay and possibly the best pitch and view of any of the sites we had been on. A level strip of grass, the beach and the sea all within a few feet of the van door … a shame it had gone grey and a bit breezy and a shame that the facilities were very old yet clean enough - but you can’t have it all! In front we had Oystercatcher, Curlew, Dunlin, Ringed Plover, Redshank and Heron. Then we both spotted an otter feeding and coming onto the rocky shore way to the left of the bay. I got my camera and tripod and went stalking!

Pauline says: … ‘I stayed where I was and watched – that rocky area covered in seaweed would not have been kind to me and there was no point in me lumbering, falling, swearing (risking breaking something like the camera!) while scaring the otter off so I watched as Ian got quite close to it. Meanwhile I had seen a very large, very distant dark bird flying inland and felt I had seen a White-tailed Eagle. This was later confirmed when we were told about an eyrie that was the best kept secret – it remained a secret – despite angling for details we weren;t let in on it!’

Sun 14th July ...

We left the Gruinard Bay idyll at dinnertime and travelled the short stretch down to Gairloch and got piched up before having a run out up and down one or two very minor routes when the total birding was skuas, gannets and one Stonechat!

In the evening we went to a posh hotel for our tea! I had my favourite gammon, egg, chips and mushrooms … Pauline had fish and chips (so predictable!) and for afters raspberry crumble and custard for me and a caramel meringue for her ladyship! It was beautifully done with local produce but just too expensive to repeat ….

Mon 15th July ...

The weather had returned to its default setting – grey, drizzle and breezy ….  WE meandered round to the parking spot overlooking Shieldag Bay at the end of Loch Gairloch and spotted an otter fishing around one of the small islands – too far for photography but not too far to watch through binocs. We got chatting to a couple who stopped also to watch and they told us they were in a holiday cottage at Badachro just down the road. The visitor book warned guests to keep windows and doors closed to stop the pine martens coming in!

Pauline says: … ‘You should have seen our eyes go round at this bit of information! Really - where did you say you were staying again?! As soon as they left we looked at each other and mimed opening doors and windows and cracked off laughing!! Little did we know that in less than a month’s time from the end of this tour we would be back – not to the cottage in Badachro but one even closer (with pine marten) which at this point we had no idea about! But that story comes later!!’ Hopefully the photo below will wet your appetite for the next posting!!

We drove out to Red Point but it was too cloudy, misty and damp to see the view properly – its said to be very picturesque! Aside from yet more skuas, a Buzzard, herons and mergansers very little was stirring.

Fish and chips rounded the evening off but Pauline didn’t like them for some reason. The sun finally came out at 9pm and the day ended in a blaze of glory!

Tue 16th July ...

We went food shopping and discovered the delights of the local butcher – steak and chive burgers – oh boy! I wouldn’t like to admit just how many burgers we had in this 5 day stay (and we took some frozen on the rest of the tour!) The weather was dry, grey and breezy. We waited around at the parking spot overlooking Shieldag Bay again but no otter so we ‘mosied’ off to recce Loch Maree, Bridge of Gruidie and Ben Eighe Reserve.

Pauline says: … ‘I was not expecting the view that unfolded as we came down through the plantations and round the corner to look fully down the loch … I don’t think I;ve seen a more perfect view than Loch Maree with Slioch crouching above it! The sun came out and the clouds went white and puffy and it was just simply stunning!

Again following directions from various books and guides we stopped at Bridge of Gruidie and tried to find the pools where the dragonfly species were to be found … despite the recent rains the ground, which should have been really quite boggy, was very dry and at the first go I didn’t find what remained of the pools. I did check a small loch and stream west of Loch Maree and watched a Golden Ringed Dragonfly and Pike in the stream. We both soon sussed that a Spotted Flycatcher had a nest near where we were parked though! It was a very obliging bird and not overly concerned about us sitting in the open with cameras and big lenses and went about its business. We both got a variety of shots of it collecting food and brooding the nestlings.

Its was back to the parking spot overlooking Loch Shieldag while I cooked steak and chive burgers and Pauline made onion relish! The otter seen here previously did not reappear while tea was cooked and eaten.

We were told later that there had been an earthquake in the Gairloch area at 5am measuring 2.2 on the Richter Scale … did we feel it? Nah did we heck – dead to the wide!!

Wed 17th July ...

We woke to rain and it had rained in the night bringing renewed worries about the rooflight leaking … we’ve tried various things over the years to cure it of this, both paid for in garages and ‘bodged’ ourselves but it always seems to end up leaking again and its always onto Pauline’s side of the bed roll and she gets grumpy when she wakes with wet cold feet … I can’t think why?! Perhaps cos its warm and dry on my side!!

It was a poor day but dry in the afternoon so we had a ride to the very southern end of Loch Maree and back. For tea we went back on site and I ran down to the village for chips to go with my burgers! While food preparation was going on a White-tailed eagle flew over the site quite low – it was a grandstand view but a white-out sky behind made it just a silhouette and not worth scrambling the camera. This was how we learned about the nest being the best kept secret – but we still don’t know its whereabouts – so they are better at keeping such secrets than they think!

Thu 18th July ...

Today was moving south day again and we departed Gairloch and had travelled down to Reraig adding in the briefest diverson round the peninsular to Applecross and over the infamous 'high' road. Pauline was delighted to spot Alpine Lady's Mantle during an 'up in the clouds' stop! On the way we had seen 3 more Black-throated Divers, plus some distant red-throated and also Merlin. The site at Reraig was small, beautifully organised and kept and there was suddenly more small birds around, finches, tits, thrushes, blackbirds than we had seen at any other point in the trip so far … the seeming emptiness of the more northern areas – which looked fit for birds – was worrying … the statistics keep saying there are huge drops in some bird populations and we can believe it after this trip. Although July is not ‘good birding’ month you would expect species to be breeding or to see fledged young around and there has been little evidence in a lot of places, to the point that we have felt large areas are almost empty? When you’re driving around so much you see birds flying across the road but we’ve gone 15 and 20 miles at a stretch and not even a blackbird has flown … 

 

Fri 19th July ...

We woke early as it was moving on day again but found a thick, white cold sea fog had descended, we could barely see across the site let alone the road. Pauline wanted me to see the Skye Bridge but the fog did not lift and we drove towards it without the view she’s described from her previous crossing in 2011. So I;ve been over it but still not seen it! We travelled up Skye toward the next overnight stop at Torvaig and during this journey we burst out of the fog into the bluest of blue days – not a cloud to be seen anywhere! We had dinner on our new pitch, put our sign out to claim ownership and set off for a quick look at the Isle of Skye! Setting off north we saw a female bullfinch fly across the road and later a couple of kestrels and in general more small birds knocking about. Pauline got in and out at intervals to take views especially Loch Leathan, The Storr and the Old Man of Storr which neither of us had seen before – the weather was sublime blue and hot. The cliffs and viewpoints futher along the coast were worth a quick look as well.

 

 

Sat 20th July ...

For the third day in a row we fuelled up - the mileage tally for the north west coast now reading 1,480 miles! Pauline heard both Sedge and Garden Warbler singing from the bushes at the Co-op car park! It was an afternoon sail from Uig to Lochmaddy and as this is the end of mainland Scotland I shall begin a new post on the blog entitled ‘Out to the Isles’ ….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Comments

5.Neil(non-registered)
Awesome stuff, just read it top to bottom!
4.Pauline and Ian Wildlife Images
Thanks Ellen - the next installment went up today!!!
2.Joan Disley(non-registered)
I too have been to these places but over several years all thoroughly enjoyable and this blog has been a wonderful trip down memory lane for me; now where is part two?
1.Brian Rafferty(non-registered)
Pauline and Ian.Wondered where you had gone!! Absolutely fabulous to read of your adventures up in the far North West.A very long time ago I visited this area and it was wonderful to be taken back again with your daily accounts and stunning images.The Black Throated Diver images are to die for!! and well worth the midges etc.
Looking forward very much to the next installment.

Catch up with you sometime..meantime take care.

Regards Brian Rafferty.
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