With foreign travel currently falling into the “More Trouble Than It’s Worth” category, The Boon Companion and I have been using the brief periods between travel bans to enjoy what are nowadays called staycations, but when we were growing up were called “proper holidays”—that is, leaving home and staying in another part of the country for a few days.
Ullapool was the venue for the first “proper holiday” I can remember—a week in a caravan at Rhue Point*, enlivened by the fact that my father’s car blew a cylinder-head gasket on the way north, and it took the entire duration of the holiday for a replacement part to arrive. And it rained every day. I contentedly read through a vast stockpile of espionage thrillers, blissfully assuming that this was what a “proper holiday” involved, while my parents went quietly stir-crazy.
No caravan, this time. We stayed in a spacious self-catering place above the town, and largely avoided the rain despite the lateness of the season.
From Ullapool, we made short drives north, south or west and then got out of the car, wandered around, and looked at stuff. Very much the way a “proper holiday” was supposed to be, back in the day.
To the north is the mad landscape of Coigach and Assynt. We made a little circuit of the Coigach peninsula, lurching frequently off the single-track road at random flat bits as each new photographic opportunity arose.
And we wandered around the path network on Knockan Crag, which is full of interpretive signboards explaining the geology, interesting geology-themed sculpture, and really jaw-dropping views of the surrounding mountains.
South lies Leal Forest and the Corrieshalloch Gorge. Leal is a “forest garden”, deliberately planted in groves of native and foreign trees during the nineteenth century, so there’s plenty of mature timber to gawp at. Corrieshalloch is a surprisingly spectacular slot, carved by the Abhainn Droma, hidden away right next to the A835. In the past, its presence was heralded by busloads of tourists wandering obliviously back and forth across the trunk road from a conveniently placed lay-by, but that access has now been shut down, and a proper car park constructed on the opposite side of the gorge, off the A832, which doesn’t involve death-defying mass road crossings.
West took us to the beaches of (successively) Gruinard Bay, Loch Ewe and the tautologous Loch Gairloch. I can never get these three inlets straight in my head, in part because each of them contains its own right-of-centre island—Gruinard Island, Isle of Ewe and Longa Island. The first-named is the notorious site of a British bio-weapon test in 1942, which left it uninhabitable for fifty years. The old warning signs along its beaches used to be easily discernible with binoculars from the mainland. Since the alleged decontamination of the site, they seem to have been removed—but I saw one behind the bar of a local hotel a few years, which was disconcerting.
On the wildlife front, we were regularly visited by a couple of young red deer, one of whom I managed to catch teetering across our patio at dead of night, investigating (and then rejecting) some sliced apple I’d left out as bait. (Calum the Stag at Torridon is very partial to a bit of sliced apple.)
And that was that. Home just in time for another travel ban. Oh well.
* A bilingual tautology, Rhue being derived from Gaelic rubha, “promontory”.
Only a few years back, a voyage to Morocco necessitated long preparation: servants, guides, animals for riding, camping materials, much time, and therefore great fatigue and heavy expenses. Though the greatest care was taken, comfort, while moving or at rest, was non-existent, and travellers were sometimes exposed to very disagreeable adventures. Things have changed.
We took our trip for a little winter sunshine farther afield this year, and spent some time in Morocco. We divided our time between Marrakesh, north of the High Atlas; Ouarzazate, on the south side; and Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast.
Having flown into Marrakesh’s rather spiffy airport, we spent our first night at the entrance to the Ourika Valley, with a view of the snowy Atlas Mountains in the distance.
When visiting Moslem countries I’ve always enjoyed hearing the adhan, the call to prayer. It was particularly pleasant in the evening cool at Ourika, when the mu’azzins at each mosque in the valley seemed to take turns, to avoid drowning each other out. So the cry of Allahu akbar! came again and again, from different locations in the twilight, each time in a different voice and with a different style.
The next day, we drove (were driven, actually, and thank goodness in retrospect) over the Tizi n’Tichka, the highest pass in the Atlas. The whole northern approach seemed to be one long, continuous roadworks, with steep drop-offs on one side, decorated with the bent remnants of crash barriers, and falling rocks coming down from the other side.
The contrast between the north and south sides of the Atlas is dramatic, with the south lying in the rain-shadow of the mountains. Compare the fertile view above with the one below, taken a little distance east of Ouarzazate:
Ouarzazate itself was a surprise. We had half-expected a sleepy little desert village. It turns out to be a large and prosperous-looking town, full of new buildings, fresh paint and impressive boulevards.
It’s the centre of the Moroccan film industry (“Mollywood”, we were told), and we drove past several sprawling studio lots, which have provided locations for many motion pictures over the years. And just outside town there’s the old fortified village of Aït Benhaddou, which has provided settings for many more:
Then back over the pass to Marrakesh, a town that enjoys two different spellings of its name—in English, Marrakesh; in French, Marrakech.
French is commonly spoken in Morocco, a relic of the French Protectorate period in the early twentieth century. Road signs are bilingual in Arabic and French, which is a blessing if (like me) the Arabic alphabet is a closed book to you. Government buildings also frequently sport a third language, in a third alphabet:
The middle band of writing is in the Neo-Tifinagh alphabet used for Berber languages. Until fairly recently you could be arrested for using Tifinagh in Morocco—but times change, and this sign is outside the police station.
There seems to be some sort of ordinance in Marrakesh that it must live up to its nickname, “The Red City”. Although most buildings are concrete, they’re all painted in shades of ochre and terracotta—the colour of the traditional building material, rammed red earth.
Marrakesh is mad with bustle and crazy driving. Most of the zebra crossing appear to be advisory only—the only way to cross the road is to stride out boldly into the traffic, and hope that motorists will be too embarrassed to actually kill someone at an official crossing place. Even in the narrow streets of the souks, there’s an alarming amount of traffic:
But the souks are fascinating, divided into sections according to trade. The owners seem to vie with each other for the most colourful and symmetrical displays:
From the souk, you stumble out into the sunlight of Jemaa el-Fnaa, a teeming open square lined with even more shops:
In Jemaa el-Fnaa, you can have your fortune told, get a henna tattoo, hold a Barbary macaque, listen to Gnaoua music, and watch the snake tormentors charmers at work. Oh, and buy a bit of fruit if you’re so inclined.
Nearby, in a street leading down to Koutoubia mosque, horse-drawn carriages are lined up, ready to take tourists on a tour of the city. The horses must be high on actual horse tranquilizers, since they trot along unconcernedly as Marrakeshi drivers shoot past inches from their shoulders. The street smells exactly the way you’d expect, for a cobbled street in which many horses spend a lot of time—it smells jumentous, which is a word meaning “resembling the urine of a horse” I’ve been waiting all my life to use in natural conversation.
Our last visit was to Essaouira, with its rolling Atlantic breakers, colourful old Portuguese harbour, constant winds, and (it would appear) and ordinance requiring white paint on all its buildings.
After frenetic Marrakesh, it was nice to stroll down a street that contained nothing more threatening than the occasional bicycle.
On the wildlife front, we had some interesting bird encounters. There were a lot of urban White Storks, often roosting on top of Morocco’s many mobile-phone-masts-disguised-as-palm-trees:
Or making their gigantic nests on mosque minarets:
They perform an amicable bill-clapping ritual when they’re both on the nest, and our hotel room in Marrakesh used to resound to that curiously soothing sound. Here’s a sample from xeno-canto:
Isn’t that nice?
In the evening, the pretty tingitanus subspecies of House Sparrow would arrive in noisy flocks to settle in the courtyard of our hotel:
In the hour before dusk, the room would fill with a cacophony of social chirping—which would suddenly and intermittently fall silent. Peering into the trees from our window, I quickly spotted the cause:
A male kestrel was sitting in the palm tree outside, occasionally launching attacks on the sparrows as they arrived. At the sight of his wings in the courtyard, the assembled flock would immediately fall silent. I was able to find my way on to the hotel roof, and look down on the fierce little raptor as he went about his business—falconry by proxy.
Finally, there is the vexed matter of goats up trees. There’s no doubt that goats climb trees in Morocco. They do it in pursuit of argan fruit. Here are some, for instance, going about their happy caprine capers:
And on the road to Essaouira, we were flagged down by a little boy who pointed eagerly towards … a tree full of goats. Positively brimming with goats, one would have to say:
While the Boon Companion took photographs. I contemplated the goats. None of them were eating anything. Many were standing at the ends of branches with no foliage at all, facing outwards. And some of them seemed to be standing on tangles of branches that looked … well, platform-like. I let my gaze wander to the other trees in the vicinity. As far as they eye could see, they were uniformly goatless. I let my gaze wander back to “our” conveniently placed roadside tree, where our guide was passing out money to the child and an accompanying adult. Hmmm.
I’m not at all averse to farmers scoring a bit of extra cash from passing tourists. I’m just not entirely convinced that these goats were willing participants in the scheme. To paraphrase Hippy Carnes from The Abyss (1989), I think they may be doin’ it, but they ain’t diggin’ it. (I would like to know how they get them up there, though, and how often the shifts change.)
And then it was time to go home. Where we slipped into Heathrow under the coat-tails of Storm Ciara, and then didn’t see the sun again for a week.
Climbers who know this great mountain will agree that it is the mightiest and most imposing in all Britain. On leaving Kinlochewe to drive down Glen Torridon, you first skirt the quartzite slopes of Beinn Eighe, but on reaching Loch Clair it suddenly burst upon the view across the moor, its eastern ramparts falling almost vertically and its impending cliffs of red sandstone stretching as far as the eye can see.
That’s Walt Poucher waxing typically overblown about the view of the mountain Liathach from Glen Torridon, captured above by the Boon Companion. Not exactly “as far as the eye can see”—but the sensation on first rounding the corner and catching sight of this hulking great mountain is not unlike coming out of harbour in a rowing boat and finding an aircraft carrier bearing down on you.
We were bound for the far end of the glen, to a cottage on the shore of Loch Torridon.
It boasts a fine view of the gentler, western end of Liathach, with the village of Torridon nestled below:
And to the left of that view, the cliffs of Beinn Alligin loom across the loch:
So a fine spot to spend a few short November days. We didn’t stray far. One trip took us above the snow-line on the infamous Bealach na Ba road to Applecross, with its stunning view of the Skye Cuillin:
On other days we went north to Loch Maree, to wander through the woodlands there, with views towards the castellated bulk of Slioch:
The frosty tracks behind the Beinn Eighe Visitor Centre were still accessible, even though the centre itself (along with a large chunk of the Highland hospitality industry) was closed for the season. There’s been a big change since I first visited this spot, fifty years ago. At that time a visitor centre for a geographical feature was a complete novelty. The paths were rough and un-signposted. Nowadays they’re broad, smoothly surfaced tracks, waymarked and decorated with sculpture and carvings and … other stuff:
We had some good and bad wildlife encounters. The bad one happened at Applecross, where a dog broke its lead and attacked a pair of red deer stags on the shoreline:
The deer made a good job of defending themselves, but eventually one broke and ran for the hillside, while the other plunged into Applecross Bay and swam a kilometre to the other side. We watched it through binoculars until we saw it wade out of the water on the far side, and breathed a sigh of relief—but perhaps prematurely. An hour later, as we drove around the coast road, we saw it still standing on the shoreline—a wet and exhausted deer at sunset, with a frosty night ahead.
On a happier note, we also communed with Calum—a thirteen-pointer stag who intermittently hangs around the walkers’ car park below Liathach, successfully cadging food.
And then there was our almost customary encounter with distinctly un-wild life:
But the highlight was this little fellow:
The picture was taken through a glass door, using a security light for illumination, so it’s not the sharpest of images—but it gives a good impression of what a smart little creature a pine marten is.
It turned out our cottage was on the beat of a pair of martens, who visited several times every night. Using advice the Boon Companion had gleaned from a wildlife photographer, we baited our picnic table with dollops of jam topped with raisins, and I was able to get this little burst of infra-red footage of a pine marten experiencing some kind of culinary ecstasy:
The martens were (obviously) the highlight of the show outside our front window. But the view was never really dull.
ARTHUR: You… are you saying that you originally made the Earth? SLARTIBARTFAST: Oh yes… did you ever go to a place… I think it’s called Norway? ARTHUR: What? No, no I didn’t. SLARTIBARTFAST: Pity… that was one of mine. Won an award you know, lovely crinkly edges.
Well. That’s the obligatory Hitch-hiker’s quotation out of the way. Which of course springs unbidden to the mind of anyone (of a certain vintage) who travels through the Norwegian fjord-lands.
We spent a couple of weeks with a hired car, wending our way from Bergen to Ålesund and back, crossing the ramifying drainage basins of the Hardangerfjord, Sognefjord, Nordfjord and Storfjord.
These fjords are so complicated in their windings and branchings that I found I couldn’t hold more than a day’s-worth of terrain in my head at any one time. And the mountainous complexity of the terrain led to three main driving experiences, all more-or-less unnerving when first encountered while sitting on the wrong side of a strange vehicle—tunnels, narrow mountain roads and ferries.
The tunnels were a doddle compared to the unlit, single-track-with-passing-places nightmares we encountered in the Faeroes. Almost all were wide enough for two cars, and all contained at least a gesture towards illumination, even in remote areas. The Norwegians do seem to delight in carving their tunnels in long curves or gentle spirals, which is a little disorientating when oncoming headlights suddenly appear in unexpected parts of your visual field. But from time to time, in mid-tunnel, we’d be suddenly overtaken by a local Norwegian, apparently confident there was a straight run ahead that would reveal any oncoming headlights. Or they were just crazy people—it’s sometimes difficult to tell.
The madly steep and winding roads were great fun, and the Norwegians have made a virtue out of them, incorporating some of the steepest and most winding into their 18 Norwegian Scenic Routes. We sampled a few, and in fact made a detour to take in the Stalheimskleiva, with its 20% gradient and 13 hairpin bends on the descent into Nærødalen. Here’s what it looked like in 1890:
Not much has changed since then, except it has been surfaced and declared one-way (descent only), and is now bypassed by the main road which travels (you guessed it) through a long curving tunnel. Well, I say one-way—but when we descended it, we met a young woman on a bicycle coming up. Quite slowly.
In the main, these mountain roads are not nearly as terrifying as some of the more breathless TripAdvisor reviewers would have you believe. But they can be a bit of a pain if you meet a fleet of sight-seeing buses coming up the hill from a cruise ship that has just docked in the village below, as we did on the pretty descent into Geiranger.
The only real exception we encountered is the madness that seems to prevail on the western end of the Aurlandsfjellet road. This is steep and hairpinned and about a car-and-a-half wide, with infrequent passing places, and unfortunately mobbed by traffic trying to get to the beautiful Stegastein viewing platform above the fjord. And a lot of this traffic seems to involve anxious people driving RVs they’ve apparently only just hired that morning, and on which they can’t find reverse gear. When we were there, a car towing a caravan had broken down about halfway up, and another driver was apparently attempting to reverse all the way back down.
And then there are the ferries. Foreign ferries are always a little anxiety-provoking: strange methods of payment, incomprehensible warning signs, unknown queueing systems, and brusque attendants making impenetrable hand gestures. But they’re an integral part of travel in these parts, and they establish a pleasant rhythm to the day—drive up a windy road; drive across a high plateau, stop for goats; drive down a windy road; take a ferry; repeat.
Some of these fifteen-minute ferry crossings are … informal. People drive on and choose a random lane to park in. On arrival, when the bow door opens, everyone drives off four abreast and then merges chaotically into one lane of traffic at the far end of the dock. Sometimes people start driving on for the return journey while the last few cars are still disembarking. And the triangular route between Dragsvik, Hella and Vangsnes adds a new level of excitement, as people who want to go on to the next destination have to drive off and then drive on again, so that their cars are pointing in the same direction as the people who’ve just boarded—disembarkation is followed by a mad little rally around a mini-roundabout before driving back on board. Norwegians travelling in Scotland must find the regimented approach of the CalMac ferry operators deeply oppressive.
So, apart from driving and sailing through astonishing landscapes, what else did we do?
We puzzled over the meaning of road signs, as you do in a foreign country. In particular, we couldn’t deduce the meaning of “Over fartsgrensa?” from its accompanying picture. You can find at least one person on the internet who thinks it has something to do with driving fatigue, which sort of vaguely makes sense, but plugging the phrase into translation software reveals that it actually means “Over the speed limit?” The significance of the half-blurred girl eluded us, though.
But then there’s another puzzle, because an internet search on “over fartsgrensa” turns up lots of pictures of otherwise identical signs that read “Over fartsgrensen?” Why the different endings? It’s because Norway has two official written languages, bokmål and nynorsk, and it turns out that grensen means “the limit” in bokmål, while grensa means the same thing in nynorsk. And although much of Norway uses bokmål, our fjord-land journey was taking us through the heartland of nynorsk. (I get excited about these little revelations, but I completely understand if you don’t.)
We wandered pleasantly around Bergen and Ålesund, the two towns at either end of our trip. Both have pretty little centres facing on to the harbour, and both have scenic hills looking down on them.
We looked at a lot of waterfalls—as with our experience in the Faeroes, we pretty soon re-calibrated our perceptions of what constituted a noteworthy waterfall.
We took a train up (and then down) the Flåm valley. This is a (predictably by now) steep and winding scenic ascent that links the ferry port of Flåm to the main line between Bergen and Oslo. At the railway junction sits Myrdal, a station in the middle of mountainous nowhere which exists only to allow people to change trains. But as the train gets close to Myrdal, something positively surreal occurs. The train halts at a viewing platform overlooking Kjosfossen, a spectacular waterfall even by Norway’s standards. Passengers get out to photograph the waterfall. After a brief pause, a female voice begins to sing from the direction of the falls (hauntingly and slightly threateningly), and a succession of dancers in red dresses appear among the ruined buildings and rocks. They’re depicting hulders (singular, huldra)—members of that apparently endless list of mythical female creatures who seduce men only to kill them. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?)
After a while, the song ends, the hulders drop out of sight, and everyone piles back on the train. It’s a remarkable little interlude.
And we wandered accidentally into a Viking village. Looking for a place to stop, stretch our legs and take a look at the head of the Nærøfjord (a branch of Sognefjord), we drove into the village of Gudvangen. We found ourselves being flagged into a huge informal parking area by a woman dressed in Viking costume (with a hi-vis jacket on top). When we arrived in the parking area, people dressed as Vikings were getting out of the cars—and some were carrying bladed weapons. We had strayed into a weekend market in the recreated Viking village of Njardarheimr. I could have bought a battle axe. (Only the puzzle of how to get it home prevented me from actually buying a battle axe, to be honest.)
It’s only a little unnerving that the otherwise peaceful and rational Norwegians have so enthusiastically embraced their blood-thirsty Viking past. It reminded me of our visit to Mongolia, where we discovered that the national hero is Genghis Khan.
Finally, I’d like to draw your attention to this rather splendid Norwegian object:
It’s called a kokosbolle, which I think means something like “coconut bun”—marshmallow, chocolate, grated coconut.
Now consider this homegrown Scottish object, locally known as a “snowball”, and reputedly invented in Scotland* by Tunnock’s in 1954:
* You may (or may not) be fascinated to know that the snowball, as manufactured in Scotland by Lees and Tunnock’s, has been legally declared a cake. Apparently confectionery in the UK is subject to Value Added Tax, whereas cakes are not. The two companies went to court to challenge a decision by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, who had classified the snowball as “standard rated confectionery”. Judge Anne Scott upheld their appeal with the words, “A Snowball looks like a cake. It is not out of place on a plate full of cakes. A Snowball has the mouth feel of a cake.” I’m glad we got that sorted out.
This time, we headed off to Mull. We stayed in a house on Calgary Bay, in the northwest of the island—here’s the view from our front window:
The tiny village of Calgary (Calgaraidh in Gaelic) is the namesake of Calgary in Alberta, thanks to Colonel James MacLeod of the North-West Mounted Police, who seems to have spent a happy time here in the 1870s.
The roads of Mull are largely single-track and winding, and we wanted to take advantage of (another!) spell of good weather by being out in the open air, so we didn’t drive far.
We got as far north as Glengorm Castle which, despite sounding like a place from the writings of Compton Mackenzie, is a pleasant spot from which you can wander along the coastline, looking out towards Coll and Tiree and the Small Isles.
And we got no farther south than the island of Ulva, which lies only a short distance from the mainland. It boasts a rather fine tearoom, and a particularly bijou ferry, which is summoned to the mainland using a sliding shutter to reveal a red square on an otherwise white placard.
Ulva is dotted with the ruins of old cottages, a reminder of what a populous place it once was. The war memorial in the grounds of the church also gives one pause—this tiny island parish (just 10 by 5 kilometres) lost four residents to the First World War, and two to the Second.
I found myself particularly wondering what had happened to Mary Melosine MacNeill, of the Women’s Land Army.
Our nearest town was the metropolis of Dervaig:
Driving in the opposite direction took us along a rugged coast road, past the triply tautologous Eas Fors Waterfalls (eas is “waterfall” in Gaelic; fors is “waterfall” in Norse).
(While the Boon Companion was taking this long exposure image, there was a sudden burst of alarm calls from birds in the trees, and a sparrowhawk shot right around the little bowl of the waterfall.)
From the crest of the same road, driving south, you’re also treated to the sudden appearance of Mull’s highest mountain, Ben More.
(While the Boon Companion lined up that image, I was distracted by big wings soaring overhead. White-tailed eagles are nowadays so common along this stretch of coast that it’s almost unusual to have a day out without seeing one.)
We also took a trip to the colourful harbour of Tobermory:
From there, we were able to catch a boat to the Treshnish Islands, on the same excursion we took last year when we were in Ardnamurchan. The main attraction, of course, were the puffins on the uninhabited island of Lunga:
While the Boon Companion busied herself with these little characters, I wandered off to take a look at the ruined “black houses” that look out across the sea towards Mull, and wondered what life must have been like here, during a winter storm.
Then there was a hitch. The boat that was to take us onward to Staffa and Fingal’s Cave had developed an engine fault. So we stood around in the sunshine while another boat motored out to pick us up. Being British, we formed a neat queue in the middle of an empty and featureless pebble beach:
Staffa was, as ever, mobbed. We found ourselves a nice place to sit beside the path to Fingal’s Cave, and watched the surf breaking over the rocks. We each had a neat hexagonal basalt column to perch on.
And that was that. Another week in the Hebrides, another week without rain. I assured an Australian couple on the Ulva ferry that the weather in Scotland was always like this. They didn’t believe me for a moment.
Another year, another Hebridean island. This time we spent a week on Islay. (For non-Scottish readers, it’s probably worth mentioning that the second syllable of the island’s name is pronounced “la”, rather than “lay”. Nothing betrays the whisky dilettante more quickly than a profession of enthusiasm for Is-LAY malts.)
We stayed in another one of those turf-roofed, stone-walled, eco-friendly houses that seem to have become all the rage in the Highlands and Islands self-catering market.
This one was called A’ Mhoine Bheag, which is a name any Scottish hillwalker would make a detour to avoid if it appeared on a route map—it means “the little bog”. But the house was airy and comfortable and showed not the slightest sign of sinking into the ground, so that was all good.
Islay being the home of several world-famous distilleries, we set aside a distillery tour for a rainy day. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a rainy day, so this was as close as we got to the inside of a distillery:
White buildings were a bit of a theme on Islay:
From isolated lighthouses to entire villages, someone was making a killing on white masonry paint:
Another theme on Islay is its tooth-grittingly bad roads. There’s an amazingly straight stretch of tarmac between Port Ellen and Bowmore along which the locals blast at 70mph, but (by virtue of being built across a peat bog) it has quite the most alarming undulations along its length, limiting those who don’t want to become unexpectedly airborne to a more sedate 50.* Elsewhere, roads can consist of a ridge of grass flanked by potholes—and sometimes they omit the ridge of grass. Islay is the only place I’ve been where the direction signs include “C” roads.
(If you enlarge the image above, you’ll detect evidence for a little-known but nonetheless significant Rural Scottish Tradition—discharging firearms at road signs. No-one knows why this occurs. We only know that it is so.)
But these hellish roads get you to interesting places. One of them is the Big Strand, 12 kilometres of (oddly un-Gaelic, un-Norse) beach, directly exposed to the Atlantic swell that rolls endlessly in through the gap between Ireland and the Outer Hebrides.
Another possibility is Islay’s sparse (but green and pleasant) woodland:
And then there’s the dramatic coastline between the beaches:
The view above looks south from the American Monument on Mull of Oa, which commemorates the servicemen who died in the sinkings of the troop ships SS Tuscania and HMS Otranto off these rugged coasts in 1918.
The Mull of Oa (the name is pronounced “oh”, not “oh-a”, as if it were some mind-boggling Scottish Presbyterian sequel to The Story of O) is the westernmost point of The Oa, which is a nature reserve and also the location of our A’ Mhoine Bheag lodge. Our little traipse around the vicinity of the monument generated welcome encounters with choughs and golden eagles. My wildlife cam, posed outside our front door, took a lot of pictures of grass waving in the wind, mice, hoodie crows and pheasants, but also a surprising visit from a snipe:
I’ve no idea why a snipe would want to walk past our front door in the early hours, but (s)he was very welcome.
That’s it for now. More Hebrides soon.
* Which would be a violation of The Oikofuge’s Third Law:Never become airborne using any mode of transport that is not actually generating lift.
One party elected to explore St. Michael’s Cave with almost tragic consequences. For a peculiarly long subaltern of Rifles succeeded in becoming jambed [sic] in “Clincher Hole”. In his case, it was not owing to extra width of shoulders or depth of chest as in that of the British bluejackets who had been unable to pass through it, and I imagine his sticking was more of the nature of a fish-bone across the gullet type. Anyway he became fixed, to the consternation of those below him who thus saw their retreat cut off. The tale goes that at one time it was under consideration to sacrifice him for the good of the majority and remove him piecemeal. Happily, he was eventually dragged out.
Our by-now customary trip to the Mediterranean in search of late winter sunshine took us to Gibraltar this year, in early March. We flew into Malaga and drove down the coast. While everyone has been rather hypnotized, of late, by the slow-motion train crash Brexit has created on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, no-one seems to have been paying much attention to the UK’s other land border with the EU—between Gibraltar and Spain. Relationships there have never been particularly cordial at the best of times, and we decided that we’d like to make the journey before Brexit made things any worse.
We travelled through balmy Costa del Sol sunshine, and arrived to a warm evening in Gibraltar—and that was the last glimpse of sun we had. A levanter wind established itself for the duration of our stay, establishing a cap of cloud on the Rock, and pushing chilly easterly winds down Gibraltar’s side streets.
Here’s a nice time-lapse video of the levanter cloud in action, as seen from the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, just north of the Gibraltar border. The town of Gibraltar sits west of the rock, under the cloud, while all around is bathed in sunshine: So we had brought British weather with us. Pretty much everything else British was already there. Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory, its Britishness intensified by something of a siege mentality, generated by … well, several sieges. So Gibraltar is characterized by a unique mixture of British institutions (fish and chip shops, red telephone boxes) and massive fortifications. You can’t travel far without encountering some huge curtain wall, or a row of shops and pubs built into the casemates of a bastion, or a war memorial, or just a stonking great gun.
The Spanish are not happy with the British presence on Gibraltar, and one does rather take their point. And although the Rock has been of serious strategic importance to the UK as recently as the Second World War, times change. If it were just a matter of handing over a few square kilometres of arid peninsula to Spain, Her Majesty’s Government would have done the deed decades ago. But the Gibraltarians keep voting to be British—once in a referendum in 1967, and again in 2002. The first referendum returned the sort of result you otherwise encounter only during Central Asian presidential elections—99.6% in favour of staying under British sovereignty. In 2002, support slumped to a mere 99.0%. These results are so important to the Gibraltarians they even commemorate them on their coinage.
In Gibraltar, paradoxically, it’s impossible to get lost, but very easy to go astray. Since the whole territory occupies only seven square kilometres, and has a monstrous rock in the middle that is never out of sight unless you’re actually underground (of which, more later), it’s easy to stay orientated. But because the road system winds endlessly around and through centuries-old fortifications, it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself on the opposite side of a wall from your destination.
Above the town of Gibraltar sits the upper part of the Rock. You can get there by cable-car, or by taxi, or you can walk (the Rock is only 426m high). We walked once—that’s quite exciting, because you share narrow, steeply sloping roads with Gibraltarian drivers, some of whom drive like they’re angry and park like they’re blind.
The roads haven’t changed much in the 30 years since the opening sequence of The Living Daylights was filmed, and the driving techniques are remarkably similar:
We divided our time equally between wandering the streets of the town and exploring the upper Rock. In town there are shops, pavement cafés, a very nice little museum and pleasant park, and a load of history all around you.
The Alameda Botanical Gardens even houses a small zoo (with large, pleasant enclosures), which is stocked with birds and animals that had originally been brought in by smugglers attempting to get exotic pets into Europe.
On the upper Rock there’s even more history, most notably the 50-odd kilometres of tunnel that have been dug through the limestone by the British military, from the eighteenth century to the Cold War. Some of these are now off-limits because they’re dangerous; some are off-limits because they house the computers of Gibraltar’s on-line gambling industry; and some are off-limits for “security reasons”. But you can wander freely through the extended museum exhibit of the Great Siege Tunnels, which were burrowed behind the north face of the Rock to create cannon emplacements that peer down on the Spanish border.
And you can take a guided tour of some of the Second World War tunnels, which in their heyday constituted an entire underground town, with its own hospitals, generators and water supply. Both sets of tunnels are dotted with uniformed mannequins, which in the dim lighting produce a strikingly atmospheric effect.
And then there are the natural caves. St Michael’s Cave and its offshoots were once a source of the sort of adventure described at the head of this post, but the main cavity of St Michael’s is nowadays a concert hall, spectacularly festooned with stalactites and curtains of limestone (and, it has to be said, illuminated with slowly shifting coloured lights reminiscent of a naff 1970s night-club).
And there are the monkeys—the so-called “Barbary apes” are actually Barbary macaques. They’re pretty well habituated to humans, and will certainly climb a person to have a rummage in their rucksack if they can smell food—but otherwise they just go about their own business under trying circumstances, with a sort of weary insouciance I found rather endearing.
On our last day, we walked around the north face of the Rock to visit a couple of Gibraltar’s tiny sandy beaches on the east coast. Paradoxically, the east coast seemed to be sheltered from the east wind—the air was being forced up and over the steep face of the Rock, leaving a little pocket of calm tucked under the windward cliffs, but with surf pounding in off the Mediterranean that would have done credit to a North Atlantic gale.
And then home. A twenty-minute delay with Spanish border checks at seven in the morning confirmed the horror stories we’d heard from Gibraltarians about hours of waiting at peak times (so much for the “free movement of goods and people” that’s supposed to happen at EU borders), and then the sun came up and we had clear skies and sunshine all the way back to Malaga.
We haven’t been to Venice for close to three years, so it seemed like time to go back. We were a month or two earlier than our usual timing, and found the area around Saint Mark’s Square still throbbing with tourists.
Sipping our morning coffee on the Riva degli Schiavoni, we were treated to a seemingly endless procession of tour groups, all dutifully tagging along behind a guide holding aloft some sort of marker. Some day I’ll write a dissertation on tour guide markers—little bespoke bats with numbers and logos on them; flags on telescopic sticks; half-collapsed umbrellas; brightly coloured scarves … and one hapless guide, presumably fallen on hard times, holding aloft an empty two-litre plastic bottle.
A full moon greeted our arrival, promising the possibility of an acqua alta to add to the fun in Saint Mark’s. And, sure enough, by noon the next day the high spring tide was pushing salt water out of the drains in the middle of the square. The crowds were forced out to the edges, threading between the café tables, where waiters in white dinner jackets were sloshing around in wellington boots, trying to keep their furniture away from the rising flood.
We did our usual thing, wandering at random through the quieter byways. There’s always something interesting to see—like this dark and partially flooded sotopòrtego, from the end of which we could peer out at gondolas passing along a sunlit canal:
After a couple of days, we took a water taxi up the Grand Canal to the Santa Lucia railway station, which must be a great way to arrive in Venice for the first time—its steps descend to a bustle of water taxis along the Grand Canal, and the green dome of San Simeone Piccolo across the water.
We were heading for Vienna aboard the Orient Express—the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, to be exact, which uses a selection of sleeping and restaurant cars dating from the 1920s. I actually don’t have much to say about that part of our journey, except to remark that the staff were efficient and cheerful, and the evening views of the Brenner Pass were lovely. Otherwise, it was a little like attending a fancy dress party inside an exquisitely panelled antique wardrobe, and then having to try to sleep inside the matching chest of drawers. Space is at a premium, and the passengers do seem to like dressing up. It was, as they say, an experience.
Vienna is a handsome, lively city, and pleases me exceedingly.
Venice and Vienna seem to be polar opposites—while the grand buildings of Venice huddle together in grubby and decaying opulence, Vienna boasts madly wide avenues, vast buildings set amid even vaster parkland, and everything seemed to have been carefully cleaned with a toothbrush just the day before we arrived. (We did find some scaffolding around St Stephen’s Cathedral, where areas of pollution-blackened stonework were still in evidence. Some sort of city-wide clean-up must be nearing completion.)
Art galleries! Museums! Parks! Pavement cafés! We circulated from one to another. We managed to spend an entire day drifting around the grounds of the Schönbrunner Palace, with its bonkers fountains, five-storey greenhouse and imperial zoo. We could have spent much longer there, if we’d been allowed to pitch a tent overnight behind the topiary.
We spent a humid half-hour in the Schmetterling Haus, next to the Burggarten park, admiring the tropical butterflies.
We gawped at the giant pink hare outside the Opera House, which seemed vaguely familiar to me. Turns out, it’s based on Albrecht Dürer lovely painting Feldhase (generally mistranslated into English as The Young Hare), which is kept at the Albertina Museum, just down the road.
The big pink version was designed by Ottmar Hörl, and used to be displayed outside the Albertina itself, but seems now to be sitting on top of an underground dinner club. I don’t know why.
And on our final day we walked to the two huge museums facing each other across the ornamental gardens of Marie-Theresien-Platz. Where to go? On the left, Art History; on the right, Natural History. To the left, we could have taken a tour of the work of Pieter Bruegel. But on the right, they had an animatronic allosaurus.
The whole group rises from the ocean, high and precipitous, surrounded by wall of lofty rocks, imposing on account of their wild aspect and the deep bays and gulfs which separate them from each other. The cliffs, in many cases, are so perpendicular, that the boats are let down by ropes, whilst the sailors clamber up the sides by holes cut in the rocks. From the top of these walls, which are as smooth as if artificially built, a stone may be dropped into the sea 800 or 1000 feet below.
The Faeroes are a mountainous archipelago that rises from the Atlantic about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. They’re small, as a comparison with a map of Scotland shows, and home to only about 50,000 people.
They’re a Danish dependency, and the inhabitants tend to be trilingual in Faeroese, Danish and English. Faeroese (like Icelandic) is a descendant of Old Norse. It didn’t come to be written down until the 19th century, and it had the misfortune to have its alphabet created by an etymologist—its spelling honours the original sounds of Old Norse, rather than the spoken sounds of the language. The capital Tórshavn is pronounced something like TOE-ish-hown; the village of Gjógv is somewhere between dshegv and tshekf; and Viðareiði comes out as VEE-a-rai-yuh. (All those links take you to the Forvo site, where you can listen to Faeroese people pronouncing the names. From here on, I’ll just link each placename to its pronunciation at Forvo, for your education, amusement and/or bafflement.)
And, while we’re on spelling, I have to confess that I’m in something of a minority when I write Faeroes. A search of the Google Ngram corpus suggests that the spelling I was taught as a kid in the 1960s has never been particularly popular, and that nowadays Faroes dominates by a factor of about two:
But I just can’t bring myself to write Faroes, because it always looks like the first syllable should be pronounced far, which in my Scottish accent is a very long way from the first syllable of the archipelago’s name.
Anyway, we spent a week there with a hired car recently. The flight from Edinburgh takes about an hour, and the car-hire process at Vágar is almost alarming rapid. (The Faeroese have a pretty relaxed attitude to rules and regulations. The fence around the port area in Tórshavn carries a sign bearing the non-committal warning “Trespassers Can Be Prosecuted”.)
Our winding route around the northern islands is marked in red on the map above, with tunnels dotted and a ferry route dashed. The islands are essentially long narrow mountain ridges, separated by flooded valleys. Most of the landscape seems to slope at forty-five degrees, or more:
The roads either follow the coast, zig-zag furiously up and down the mountainsides, or dive into tunnels. Some tunnels pass under the sea to connect neighbouring islands; some penetrate through the mountains to take you from once coast to the other. Some of the older tunnels are exactly the width of one vehicle, and unlit—you avoid oncoming traffic by slipping into passing places scooped out of the rock wall at infrequent intervals, each of them marked by a small sign that’s extremely difficult to discern against the glare of oncoming headlights. You’ll appreciate that we were a little too distracted by the horror of our predicament to take photographs at the time, but I’ve embedded an example from Google Street View to give you the idea. Below is the entrance to a tunnel above Arnafjørður that’s two kilometres long, along which traffic flows continuously in both directions. And it doesn’t get any wider beyond the entrance.
There’s so little flat ground available that there’s very little farming beyond the raising of sheep, and the grass to feed the sheep.
Beyond the closely space islands connected by bridges or undersea tunnels, the Faeroes are linked by a network of ferries. Plying between small islands in a big ocean, the ferries brave North Atlantic swell, and then push through the breakers to enter tiny harbours. The Faeroese lounge around looking bored during all this, while the tourists clutch the furniture with white knuckles.
Here’s a little video of what it’s like aboard the Mykines ferry, on what was reported to be a pretty average day:
All that steep ground makes for dramatic waterfalls. For our first few days in the Faeroes, we’d keep pulling over to the side of the road and gawping. Pretty soon we wouldn’t even get out of the car for a drop less than a hundred metres.
And everywhere, tiny communities seem to be wedged between the mountains and the sea:
The traditional Faeroese architecture involved turf roofs and tarred wooden walls, and they still appear in many places:
They even turn up in the cosmopolitan capital Tórshavn. You can see a couple below at extreme left of frame, on the brightly painted waterfront:
Many of these old buildings nowadays host government offices:
And, like every Scandinavian country we’ve ever visited, the Faeroes have a dramatic line in public statuary:
What else can I tell you? The Faeroese like their meat well-aged, which produces a number of aromatic and strong-tasting dishes. They eat whale—from past experience in Greenland, the meat has an unimpressive generic mammalian taste, and the blubber is unchewable, let alone swallowable. But in contrast to many small and steadfastly carnivorous nations, their restaurants produce tasty vegetarian dishes that go well beyond the customary limp lettuce and two tomatoes. if you’re Scottish, you will appreciate the presence, in the smallest of grocer’s shops, on the remotest of islands, of Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, Caramel Wafers, and Barr’s Irn Bru. (If you’re not Scottish, you may prefer whale blubber, or to go hungry, or to die. It’s up to you.)
The weather? Well, we’re in the North Atlantic, just south of the Arctic Circle. Sometimes it’s cold. Sometimes it rains. Dress warmly. Take waterproofs.
Random linguistic anecdote: We ordered a couple of packed lunches one day, asking for one to be vegetarian. They were handed over marked vegetar and kylling. I assumed kylling was an admirably frank Faeroese word for the opposite of vegetarianism, something like the forthright manner in which Germans call veal Kalbfleisch (“calf meat”). But it turns out they’d been labelled in Danish: “vegetarian” and “chicken”.
I do this a lot—it’s a sort of hyper-alertness for tit-bits of linguistic interest. I once deduced that the Swahili word for “bank” was tuo, after I saw this printed in large capital letters on the glass door of a bank in Nairobi. It wasn’t until I passed the other glass door, labelled IN, that I realized I’d been looking at OUT printed on the opposite side of the glass. And then there was my transient conviction that kioo was a word meaning “toilet” in one of Zambia’s several languages—I’d seen it on a notice pinned to the door of a public toilet in Kitwe. I hypothesized some link to Swahili choo, which really is a word for “toilet”. But the Zambians I spoke to were unable to identify the language for me. So I walked past the sign again, to check that I’d read it properly … and realized that it actually read “K100”. Which meant the charge for admission was 100 Kwacha (at that time the equivalent of a few pence in British money).
May’s always a good time to visit the west coast of Scotland. This time, we had a pleasantly sunny stay on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, north of Mull. The main road in Ardnamurchan is the B8007, a classification that pretty much says it all—it’s a winding single-track with passing places, which sticks largely to the shore of Loch Sunart to the south. Occasional unclassified ribbons of pot-holed tarmac branch off to serve communities on the north side of the peninsula. (The TripAdvisor posters who describe the North Coast 500 route as “demanding driving” would have a nervous breakdown if confronted by a few miles of “Ardnamurchan unclassified”.)
Ardnamurchan is supposedly good pine marten country, and the Boon Companion came equipped with pine marten bait—strawberry jam and raisins. She smeared this confection on one of the stones outside our cottage, and I set up a motion-detector camera trap to photograph whatever came by. No pine martens eventuated, but something came and ate the bait during the night, after I’d taken in the camera. There then ensued a three-way tussle between me, the camera software, and the phantom jam-eater. I’ll show you the final result (obtained on our last night) at the end of this piece.
Ardnamurchan is also good Sea Eagle territory, and we had a little more success with those than with the pine martens. The first sighting was at Castle Tioram, on Loch Moidart.
While others admired the castle, I noticed something that looked like an improbably airborne barn door circling overhead. The silhouette alone was convincing, but a quick look with the binoculars confirmed the white tail. Later, we spotted another during a boat trip near Mull, and the Boon Companion managed to capture a telephoto view after it had landed.
We also finally managed to make it to the Ardnamurchan lighthouse, which we’ve sailed past on several occasions, but never visited. It’s quite a striking granite object, supposedly built “in the Egyptian style”—certainly a change from the usual bland, white-painted column.
One day, we joined a small tour boat at Kilchoan, which took us around the west coast of Mull, to Staffa and the Treshnish Isles.
Staffa is famous for its basalt columns and Fingal’s Cave, the strange acoustics of which supposedly inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides overture.
The Boon Companion and I have distinct memories of landing on Staffa by clambering over the side of a small boat, stepping directly on to the basalt—so we were publicly disappointed (and secretly pleased) to discover that Staffa now boasts its own jetty.
The grassy plateau of Staffa was positively teeming with visitors who’d made the journey over from Fionnphort on Mull, so we were glad to find a bit of peace and quiet at our next landing place—the island of Lunga in the Treshnish Isles. No jetty there—our boat attached itself to a floating pontoon, which it then rammed firmly up the sloping rocky beach so that everyone could disembark.
The Boon Companion immediately settled down to photograph Lunga’s 3000 puffins, which were strolling around on the cliff edge, bill-tapping and excavating their burrows, apparently completely oblivious to their human visitors:
Puffins make a marvellous little self-satisfied musical croak once they’re safely settled into their burrows, and we found ourselves surrounded by these pleasant murmurings. Here’s a sample from xeno-canto. (The call is heard a few seconds from the start of the recording below. There’s no point in listening after that, because it isn’t repeated.)
After a while, I trotted off to stretch my legs by climbing to Lunga’s 103m highest point, Cruachan, which (despite its humble height) gives spectacular views along the length of the Treshnish archipelago. This view looks southwest towards Bac Mor, which is more commonly known as the Dutchman’s Cap, for reasons that will be evident if you enlarge the image:
Finally, the pesky jam-eater. On my first nocturnal attempt to photograph it, using an infra-red flash, I got nothing. On the second attempt, the flash also lit up a wall immediately behind the bait, and all I got was a completely overexposed white image. On the third (and final) night, I managed to get a bright silhouette against a darker background. One more night and I could have got the flash geometry a little better, and offered you a properly exposed image. But it’s still easy enough to see what’s going on:
And a couple of hours later (after the badger had moved the camera), the clean-up squad arrived: