Last month I described our first days in the western highlands of Scotland, based in Glencoe and then Ullapool. That was our wet introduction to a sparsely populated region of stark natural beauty with its rocky mountains, green glens, fjord-like lochs, and heather-covered peat.
We left Ullapool in the rain, headed north on the A835, a good road with two lanes, which in Scotland means two eight or nine-foot wide lanes with absolutely no shoulder of any kind. With Betsy chanting “keep left, keep left” and sucking in her breath whenever we met a truck, I continued my adjustment to driving a car that I wasn’t used to on the wrong side of a too narrow road. It took intense concentration. Betsy was able to look around at the landscape of heathered peat-land punctuated by small isolated farms nestled on occasional spots of arable land, and too many lakes to count. Before long we joined the A837 and were along Loch Assynt where we stopped to check out the ruins of Ardvreck Castle, one of three generations of ruin at this site. The inconspicuous mound of a stone cairn is nearby, probably about 5,000 years old, while the more modern ruin of a large stone house from the 18th century stands just up the road. Layers of history are everywhere in Scotland.
Heading west we drove into Lochinver, a small but important port, the commercial center of a large area of the northwest coast. That means that there is a convenience store, a gas station, MacKay’s Hardware, a café, and a post office. In the eight-hour drive from Ullapool around the coast to Thurso there are no true grocery stores.
Beyond metro Lochinver, the road winds around the coast, up and down, hemmed in by rock, past little crofts (farms) and hamlets of a few houses. The road widens into a pullout wherever nature allows. According to Scottish custom for vehicles that meet on the single track roads, the car that is closest to a pullout backs up. With so many blind twists and turns and ups and downs, such encounters are common. Speed is not an option, although the locals and lorry (truck) drivers have become inured enough to the danger that they buzz right along. Interestingly, traffic deaths per capita are about eight times higher on our wide roads as on Scotland’s narrow roads.
There are three villages worthy of the name along the northwest coast in the heart of MacKay Country. The westernmost is Durness which features a similar array of services to Lochinver. The village sits above Sango beach, one of a number of lovely sand beaches along the north coast. It is surrounded by the largest patch of farmland we had seen for days, several hundred acres in size. There are a number of working crofts, many of which offer rooms to the growing number of tourists. Other than yard trees, there are absolutely no trees for many miles; just heather, rock, and small lakes among scattered mountains rising to about 3,000 feet.
East of Durness is Loch Eriboll, a ten-mile long arm of the sea with deep water, well protected from the howling storms of the open sea to the north. It was used extensively by the Royal Navy during WWII, including as the site of the surrender of the last 33 German U-boats in 1945. Rising beyond Loch Eriboll, the road traverses a high plateau. It was raining as we drove under the heavy gray skies, the only color being the purple bloom of heather as far as the eye could see. We pulled off into a cratered dirt parking area near the ruined shell of a house. The glowering gray sky spit cold rain as we walked up to the house. I could envision a cold, wet MacKay ancestor trudging over this endless, bog covered plateau. Unbelievably, when we rounded the wall of the house, the interior walls were covered with fantastic graffiti murals. It was modern, artistic Scotland meeting the gray stone and harsh existence of ancient Scotland.
Continuing east, active peat harvesting was apparent. Peat has been an abundant fuel source for millennia here. These large northern expanses of peat are known as the Flows. More than 400,000 acres are covered by “blanket bog” covering hills and swales alike. Only a few species of plants can survive the cold, wet, acidic conditions, and when those plants die, they do not decompose. Instead, the next generation grows atop the old, a pattern that has continued since the glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago. The blanket of peat varies but is as much as 30 feet thick. The peat stores more than twice as much carbon as all the forests in the UK combined.
Descending from the plateau, the next inlet of the sea was spread before us, this time a shallow bay known as the Kyle of Tongue. Sitting on the tip of a ridge jutting into the Kyle, the ruin of Castle Varrich (once the stronghold of the MacKay Clan) commands a view over the Kyle, the village of Tongue with its collection of crofts, and the flows stretching away to the mountains.
The third village along this harsh coast is Bettyhill which sits on a rise above the mouth of the River Naver. An extensive sand beach with high dunes behind it marks the entrance to Strathnaver, a broad swath of arable land extending about 40 miles inland to Loch Naver. This was the heart of MacKay Country and about 1200 people lived on tenant farms in Strathnaver until 1819. Then the Dutchess of Sutherland, who owned the whole region, decided that sheep would be more profitable than the tenant farms. The people were told to clear off the land they had farmed for generations and the farms and hamlets were all burned. This was one of the more brutal episodes in what is known as the Highland Clearances.
Our destination was a white-washed stone cottage that we had reserved through AirBnB. After climbing east from Bettyhill and passing a couple of big wind turbines, the road to Kirtomy appeared on our left. The single-track road wound down a steep valley, emerging from the heather into green grass and a cluster of farms and scattered houses. Open to the sea stretching north toward the Orkney Islands, Kirtomy occupies a verdant bowl of arable land with heather-covered pastures rising all around. At the foot of the valley is a steep headland and a little stone beach featuring a ruined stone jetty that once hosted a small fishing fleet. Today the only boats in evidence are two lobstering dories pulled up on the beach.
Our first stop to delve into McKay history was the Strathnaver Museum in Bettyhill, where we picked up a guidebook for the Strathnaver Trail, a historical trail with 17 stops over the 20-mile length of the valley. From Bettyhill we drove south, up the Naver River, which is a renowned salmon fishing destination. The Trail stops have signage with a little history, from ancient cairns to the stone foundations of villages burned in 1819. We walked a mile or so through the woods to reach Rosal, one of the former villages. Sitting among the stone foundations I couldn’t help wondering about ancestors who lived what we would consider a brutal existence on this land, and the ignominious end to the lives they had known, brought on by the Clearances.
The Strathnaver culminates at Loch Naver, typical of the many lakes dotting the Flows. The landscape is a cross between tundra and plains, with huge expanses of sloping heather rising to 3,000-foot mountains. Along the loch we came upon a logging operation underway in a 100-acre plantation of spruce. They were salvaging logs from a large blowdown, the result of hurricane-force winds that struck northern Scotland last year. The drive north from Altnaharra to Tongue was magical, with long stretches of purple flows; the classic Loch Loyal and its attendant mountain, Ben Loyal, begging to be climbed.
Back at our classic little cottage in Kirtomy, we cooked an early supper with the food brought from Ullapool, and then took an evening stroll. Writing in my journal I realized that it had been our first day in Scotland without rain.
The next morning dawned clear and I was up early, sneaking out for a walk up onto the hills behind the cottage. The only paths I found were sheep trails through the heather, but the ground was pretty dry and the heather only ankle-high, so I could walk anywhere. From the top of the hill I could look west to the mountains that mark the northern end of the Highlands, and north out to sea. Below me was the tidy valley of Kirtomy where I counted 24 houses, and two active crofts with stacked bales of hay and flocks of sheep in the pastures.
Later we took a walk down to the little stone beach. A wandering border collie tagged along, and a single sheep sadly looked at her mates on the wrong side of the fence. Near the beach stands a monument to the Kirtomy men who perished in two shipwrecks in the 19th century. Eight of the nine men were MacKays. Scrambling down to the beach, I wandered out onto the broken concrete and rock of the small jetty with its row of iron loops drilled into the rock. At one time there must have been over a dozen boats that called this tiny bay home.
As the weather turned back to wind and spitting rain, we decided to spend a quiet afternoon in the cottage with a fire in the stove. I particularly enjoyed a day without driving. In the evening we headed into Bettyhill for a nice dinner at the little hotel, overlooking the bay and its sand beach and dunes. On the morrow we would head south as my ancestors must have done. They would encounter a new and perhaps easier life. We would have a chance encounter with the Queen.
Tim McKay is a retired natural resource conservationist and current woodworker and tree farmer who lives in Peacham and occasionally wanders farther afield.