By yon bonnie bank and by yon bonnie streams… (part 2)

A conversation with chief archaeologist at the Highland Folk Museum led me to a field alongside the new A9 near Kingussie.  There, in an unassuming corner, was a large bump which had a rather tatty fence around it and hardly a beaten path through the pasture that surrounded it.

The entrance to the souterrain at Kingussie

Souterrain, an underground burial chamber, just walk on in ! It is well worth it, oh yes.

I had mentioned (to him) that I wanted to see the great pre-historic monuments on Orkney whereupon he suggested I might like to make a small diversion and visit a rather well preserved ‘souterrain’   which was open and could be entered.  I was on my way, and what an amazing monument it was, the more so for being majorly understated; no signs until you got to within a hundred metres and then just an old finger post.  There is something spine tingly exciting about visiting a tomb that was constructed thousands of years before Christ, into which the ancestor’s bones were interred.  The dry stone construction is always of interest to me and I record each example I come across.  There is something about the skill of the Neolithic wallers that fascinates, also, why only up in the Highlands and Islands did that skill descend to later periods, whereas south of the border (and elsewhere in Europe) it came to a dead stop with the coming of the Bronze age?

Entrance to the Kingussie souterrain

Such an understated entrance to thousands of years of history, not even an interpretation board, barely a sign. Crouching to enter this astonishing monument to Neolithic folk was something I was to get nicely used to over the coming days.

I was taken with the site itself too, it gazed out over the Cairgorms and the wide valley of the Spey.  As with most such chambers its position is not advertised by being built on a ridge or skyline, it is chosen to be visible from settlements close-by and known only to those whose ancestors lay within.

I tarried quite a while at this spot, not least because of the terrific panorama that opened up in front of me.  The day was fast running away and with several hours still to go before I got to my target area for that night I bade farewell to the lush valley of the Spey and headed once more into the wilderness.

Roof slabs of the underground chamber

The great roof beams of slabbed sandstone, as strong and well positioned as when they were erected.

I turned at Tomatin for Garbole and drove up the windy roads of Strathdearn passing between the two 1800ft (600mtrs) peaks of Benn Bhreac and Carn Glach an Fich to cross the high plateau and descend into Strath Nearn.  It was whilst crossing the bleak open moorland that I caught sight of another of my target ‘birds’, a grouse.  I managed to stop and filmed him for a while and as I was packing the camera an unknown screech from away to the sunset stopped me.  I grabbed the binoculars and scanned the distant sky, again I heard the cry but could not locate the bird through the narrow aperture. Looking with my naked eyes I caught sight of it, not too far away at all and re-focussing the glasses I stood mesmerised, watching my first soaring, magnificent, regal, Golden Eagle.  For a long, long while I studied the great bird, willing it to come closer but it stayed aloof and aloft as if to tease me.  I had never seen such a huge wingspan, such a colossus of the sky and to see it there, in that wild place, made the whole trip paid for, there and then.

I was seeking out a good camping spot that would leave me a short ride on the morrow to the next of my ‘must see’ places.  Looking at my map I spied a remote loch with a road leading to it so off I went.  By now the light was fading and I found myself in some forest plantation.  Rounding a bend in the gloomy light I was confronted with a road full of Red deer hinds which casually turned and trotted in front of me.  You see, the thing is, all the roads are bordered by high deer fences which prevent the animals from getting into plantations. Normally one side or the other is fenced and the other open or fielded.  Here both sides had high fences and so the animals were forced to stay on the road, clearly knowing for where they were headed.  I managed to snap a shot through the windscreen – photograph you understand ! – of the tail-ender and then they all, in single file, squeezed through a small gap in the fence-line caused by a fallen branch, and they were gone, into the dark shadows.

High Tailing down a Scottish lane.

Can you see her ? High tailing it down the lane in front of me, her friends had already spotted the gap.

As I broke out of the woodland I spied the loch in front of me, low cloud hanging over the surrounding hills.  I decided that was the spot and began to establish my little camp, to my right a strange call alerted me to the presence of a stag, again I managed some filming.

What a first day, an array of birds to overflow the senses of the most avid ‘twitcher’.  Scenery the likes of which I had never seen before, walls and old ruined buildings and a marvellous museum.  Could it get any better !

One of the dry stone features I had hoped to see and managed to on crossing the high moorlands where I saw the grouse, were ‘shooting butts’.  The semi-circular or three sided structures provide camouflage for the guns and face out over the grouse moors from whence the birds are driven onto them.  These mostly date to the time of the Highland Clearances, when those same deserted and derelict crofts that I was seeing in so many places were forcibly vacated as landlords removed their tenants in favour of the creation of huge game shooting and stalking estates.

Dry stone shooting butt on a Scottish moor

The dry stone butt, concealed with turf is typical of dozens I saw on my circuitous route north across the famous grouse moors.

Loch Killin in the Monadhliath Mountains

My first camping spot, the shores of the remote Loch Killin in the mountain range of Monadhliath.

The following morning I headed for the Great Glen and the small town of Fort Augustus at the western end of  the place I had come to see, Loch Ness.  I grew up at a time when there was a definite uncertainty about the ‘Monster’; that uncertainty was about whether all the photographs were hoaxes or not, in other words, or so it seemed to me, most folk accepted that in the deep black waters of the biggest Loch in Britain there lived a relic from the time of the Dinosaurs.  I was  captivated by the notion and well remember serious discussions with my school friends and teachers about how many there must be and what they were !  Alas those ‘assumptions’ were finally proved erroneous by various scientific explorations and the lack of modern day sightings. Nevertheless, I wanted to go there, I wanted to stand on the isthmus of Urquhart Castle (where one of the famous photographs was taken), I wanted to look out over those ominous waters and, if only for a while, I wanted to imagine…

Loch Ness and Urquhart castle

The famous castle of Urquhart and Loch Ness, a place I’ve waited a long time to see… is that a strange wake in the water !?

I called at Fort Augustus, mainly to see the locks of the Caledonian Canal and to take in some tourist shopping, post cards needed to be sent.  I went into the Tourist Office and bought some cards, “Do you want stamps ?” I was asked by a very friendly but barely decipherable Scottish Tourism assistant, “Oh they are for America” I said, “Yes, of course, we have stamps for that too”, yes, of course she did, the only other accent I heard was New World !

The flight of locks was very impressive and was a real attraction with dozens watching the slow progress of the various sailing and motor boats up the five stages.  I grew up alongside canal locks, indeed my mother’s family came to the Monmouthshire canal at the end of the 1700s to be the lock keepers at Five Locks. Thus there was a certain nostalgia I suppose.

Caledonian Canal, locks at Fort Augustus.

The flight of Locks that lift boats from Loch Ness to the Caledonian canal and onwards to the sea – or vice versa of course.

The road along the Loch is busy, apart from the obvious tourist traffic, of which there is a lot, it is also the main route from Inverness to Fort William and hence it was not a road I wanted to dwell long on.  I had been determined to see Loch Ness, I was flabbergasted at its size, it is surely visible from space !  Unfortunately most of Europe and the New World want to see it too so having visited Urquhart I turned north again on the road to Cannich.

The waters of Loch Ness

It’s big, oh my, it is BIG, surely somewhere in that mass of black water, somewhere in that deep deep ancient world, something lives on…..

By-passing Inverness I rejoined the A9 (at the place I was to be held up on my return trip by a fatal crash) and headed for the Firth of Dornoch, there to join the road to Lairg and onwards to the Kyle of Tongue.

A short way after the town of Lairg a sign to the the Falls of Shinn attracted my interest.   The Falls are quite impressive, nicely  made available for folks to gain a good view point and it also has a very fine timber built Visitor centre.  I was interested to read the large display relating to the Atlantic Salmon, or rather the problems that elegant fish is currently experiencing as a result of the issues of over fishing, unknown pollution and also the very large hydro-electricity schemes which are impeding the journey of returning salmon to the breeding grounds high in the upper reaches of the large and famous Scottish rivers.

The cascading waters of Shinn

Salmon can be seen leaping these falls, unfortunately not while I was there, but generally the migration up-stream to return to their spawning grounds is becoming more and more difficult.

The scenery now took on an altogether wilder aspect.  Walls were everywhere as were the sad deserted hillside crofts.  This was the Highlands for real.  North of the falls I climbed slowly onto a great plateau, what my American friends would call ‘Big Sky Country’.  It is, the horizon is a long way off, the skyline is full of  large rugged peaks and the quiet and remoteness is tangible.  This was what I had come this long way to see.  This was Scotland in the raw.  For mile after mile I drove on the ‘A’ road toward the Kyle of Tongue.  No villages broke the isolation, just lonely farmsteads, even more surreal was the diminishing width of the roadway.  Eventually the A 836 became a single track road with passing places.  Fortunately traffic was slight, a number of  halts to allow ‘White Van Man’ to zoom by in the opposite direction – it now being home time – allowed me the chance to get out and gaze at the immense landscape, to photograph beautiful mountain ranges or ramshackle deserted crofts.  Of all the sections of my travels this long afternoon, slowly poodling the route north in the bright sunshine, on the quiet remote main road to the Kyle of Tongue, was the most memorable.

A838 north to Kyle of Tongue.

This is the main A836 heading north to the Kyle of Tongue. The Scotland I came to see was here, on this long lonely road. Give me the ‘high road’ everytime !

The road to the Kyle

Big Sky Country, the road to the Kyle.

The small hamlet of Altnaharra marks the end of the open country as the hills close in.  Shortly afterwards, feeling in real need of a brew-up, I turned off the main road and headed along the shores of Loch Naver. By now it was 5 ish and I was on the look out for my next night’s camping spot.

Brew-up on the shores of Loch Naver

I was getting used to Loch side cooking, the volcano kettle makes a quick job of boiling water and a little snack is all that was needed before heading off in search of an evening paradise.

A slightly bizarre encounter followed shortly when, rounding a bend on the loch-side narrow road, I came across a full blown Caravan Club Certified site (CCL) which had camper vans and caravans the size of which was astonishing, given the roads they had to travel to get to that rather sublime spot.  This last ten miles or so, following the river Naver presented me with some of my best discoveries.

I think I’ll have to carry over the last evening and the morning drive to Scrabster, there was just so much to see and so much to share with you.  For now enjoy a couple more of my memorable moments as Welshwaller reaches the top of Britain.

Crask

Crask, this little two building hamlet, the one on the right is the pub, appeared suddenly after 30 miles of deserted road, a party of Dutch motor-bikers who had passed me earlier pulled in, much to the landlord’s delight.

Old church at Skyre

This isolated little church stood alongside the road at Syre, or so the map said, I could see only a couple of isolated farmsteads and several deserted crofts.

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