The Bass Rock

The Bass Rock is one of several volcanic remnants locally. It sits in the Firth of Forth near North Berwick and is just over 106 metres high. It is visible from the East Beach in Milsey Bay

the West Strand

from Drift Café above Canty Bay

and from Seacliff Beach.

The Bass has the remains of St Baldred’s ancient chapel on it. He used it as a retreat until he died in 606AD. The chapel was consecrated in his honour in 1542 and used as an occasional place of worship until the Reformation.  From the 15th to the 18th century, it was used as a prison; not for ordinary prisoners but those held for religious or political reasons. The Scottish kings used it. In 1406 Robert III put his son, the future King James for safekeeping from his enemies. James later imprisoned one of his enemies, Walter Stewart Earl of Atholl for treason before his execution in 1424. In 1428 14 year old Neil Bhass Mackay was held there as a hostage before he escaped in 1437 and became Mackay clan chief.

The Stuart Monarchy Restoration in 1660 was more popular in Scotland than the reign of Cromwell. However, when the Act of Supremacy had been passed which made the King supreme judge in all manners civil and ecclesiastical, installing bishops and another act annulled the laws in favour of the Presbyterians, things changed. Nonconformist held what were called conventicles: meetings in private houses, churches or fields, sometimes at night. In 1670 an act was passed prohibiting house conventicles and making it a capital crime to preach at field canticles. It was thought that the Bass Rock would be an ideal place for the confinement of nonconformists so in 1671 the Crown bought the Rock and refortified it to be used as a prison. Between 1672 and 1688 several Presbyterian Covenanters were imprisoned there and from 1688 to 1692 supporters of the deposed Jacobite Kings James II and VII.

The government abandoned the Rock in 1701 and Sir Hew Dalrymple bought it in 1707. His descendants still own it. The lighthouse was constructed in 1902 on the site of the castle keep by David Stevenson who demolished some of the older buildings. It was automated in 1988. In normal times 30-40,000 pairs of  gannets nest there in summer making it the largest northern gannet colony. There are also razorbills, puffins, guillemots, cormorants, eider ducks and other gulls. Appropriately the Latin name of the gannet is Sula bassanis.

We moved to North Berwick in late 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. No boat trips out to the Bass Rock were running. When they commenced in 2021, they were all booked up. This year, most were cancelled due to avian flu which has had a major impact on the gannet population.

Round Britain: Kinlochewe to Shieldaig

The A896 which runs southwest of Kinlochewe to Torridon is single track with passing places. It runs past the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve which has a woodland restoration scheme nearby. The road passes Loch Coulin and Loch Clair by which time it was very cloudy with drizzle. The Torridon Estate is owned by the National Trust for Scotland. There are lots of hillwalking paths and mountains to climb in better weather. The A896 enters Glen Torridon with the river running on the left and near the loch, a minor road runs into Torridon.

We stopped at the Community Centre which runs the Wee Whistlestop Café: a great place for a drink and snack. Upstairs is a gallery with art works for sale of many kinds by local artists. There is also a gym and some work spaces.

The minor road continues all the way up to Diabaig and from there is a path to Red Point. The first community it reached is Fasaig, a short distance away. Just behind the community centre are the remains of Doire na Fuaran which means ‘field of the springs’. 45 families used to live here. It was cleared in 1845 so that the landlord could use the area for more profitable sheep farming. Some of the residents moved to the seashore in what is now Fasaig, others emigrated. A path runs to the ruined former crofts on the hillside.

However, we carried on towards Shieldaig on the A road which was now two lanes. It passes through Annat and then there were two viewpoints overlooking Loch Torridon and the surrounding countryside.

A minor loop road runs through Shieldaig and we soon found our campsite with good views

and with neighbouring sheep.

After settling in we had a walk down to the seafront where most of the town lies. White-tailed eagles disappeared over 100 years ago but two returned to Shieldaig, nesting on the island in 2009.

Work is underway in conjunction with the RSPB to increase the population and has so far been successful. On the seafront was a Vintage Tractor Run which was raising money for the Highland Hospice.

We popped into the smoked salmon business to buy some. They are the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament people in town. The slogan translates as ‘I hope for a free Scotland without a bomb, without Boris’. We have got rid of Boris but no guarantee of getting rid of the bombs.

From the seafront there are views over to Loch Shieldaig which is an offshoot of Loch Torridon.

I found a huge amount of sea glass on the beach.

Later we took a walk up a short hill path past an abandoned church which gave views over towards Loch Torridon.

When we came back down, we had a good conversation with one of the locals. Tonight’s meal will be in the local hotel restaurant and we will head off early in the morning because there will be a cycle race on one of the roads we need to travel back home on and we need to get past that one before it starts.

Round Britain: Inverewe to Kinlochewe

On another still morning we left Inverewe for our next destination: Kinlochewe.

The A832 crosses the River Ewe and continues south past Loch Tollaidh. At Strath we turned onto the B8021 which continues around the west side of the peninsula all the way to Melvaig. Our stop was Big Sand which is part way along the road. We parked up and had a good walk along the length of the large beach and back.

This is one of two dead jellyfish I found

and one dead starfish.

Longa Island sits offshore here.

After meeting a dog walker on the very quiet beach we had a long and very interesting conversation. Eventually we headed back to Gairloch where we had a coffee at the Gale Café and gift shop which is a community-run initiative. Next door is the farm shop which has a wide variety of products. There are views over the bay.

Strath was once the heart of the crofting community. There was a meal mill which fed them for 300 years, a blacksmith and a boat builder who served the cod fishing industry. In the 1840 potato famine the community was devastated. On 15 July 1842 215 people left Gairloch for Cape Breton Island in Canada. A town called New Gairloch had been previously been founded in 1805 in Nova Scotia. A little further along from the café is the War Memorial where there is a viewpoint over the bay

and the surrounding area.

The road continues on past a pier and Charlestown before running through Glen Kerry. We turned off to Badachro so that I could photograph the small distillery for James. They make single malt whisky, gin and vodka and there is an onsite shop.

Badachro also has a hotel and a kayak and canoe hire business. Back on the A832 we passed another hydroelectric scheme and near the dam some major road improvement works. The road then descends to Loch Maree through the Slatterdale Forest and then down to the shore. Much of the shore is hidden by trees but at one car park I managed to peek through them.

Loch Maree used to be called Loch Ewe which explains how Kinlochewe got its name. In the 17th century it was renamed in memory of Saint Maolrubbha who brought Christianity to the area and had a cell on Isle Maree. The northeast of the area was once a centre for the iron-smelting industry. It relied on charcoal which used up vast quantities of wood which destroyed much of the local Caledonian Pine Forest. Similar things happened elsewhere and now there are only 35 small remnants in the Highlands. A lot of the surrounding area near Kinlochewe is now part of the Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve. After we had settled into the campsite, we had a wander around the village. It sits astride the Kinlochewe River

and although we had had some sunshine the mountains were still covered in cloud.

Round Britain: Gruinard Bay to Inverewe

Yesterday evening I had a short walk on the beach at Laide

Where a seal was sitting on one of the rocks.

The next morning was another quiet day.

After picking up supplies in Aultbea we walked to the pier

where there are views over to the Isle of Ewe.

Back on the A832 we passed Drumchork. Loch Ewe distillery was the smallest legally operated distillery in Scotland founded in November 2005 by John Clotworthy, the hotelier of the Drumchork Lodge Hotel in Aultbea and started its business in 2006. It lasted until 2015 when it was put up for sale, closing in 2017.  On a hillside further on was a viewpoint looking over Loch Ewe and an MOD pier and associated property.  After the Soviet Union was invaded by the Nazis in 1941, Loch Ewe was one of the Arctic Convoy shipping points to send supplies to the Soviet Union for the next four years.

The next viewpoint overlooked Loch Thurnaig.

We then entered Inverewe and visited the Gardens. Despite lying on the same latitude as Moscow and Hudson’s Bay, the Gulf Stream enables an amazing variety of plants from all over the world to grow.

Inverewe Garden was created by Osgood Mackenzie. His forbears were the lairds of Gairloch. It is said that he saw the barren peninsula and decided to build a garden there after acquiring the property in 1862. His first job was to plant a shelter belt of trees against the west and south-westerly winds. 15-20 years later other trees, including non-natives were planted. He had to import soil from Ireland. The first rhododendrons were acquired around 1890.  Osgood died in 1922 and is buried in Strath churchyard. His daughter took over the estate. His and her plant inspiration came from their many worldwide travels. Eventually the garden was given to the National Trust for Scotland. We began by exploring the walled garden.

Although in September many of the flowers, shrubs and trees have gone to seed, some were still in bloom.

There was a sculpture entitled Sheltered Existence by James Parker in 2014.

The house was built in 1937.

Some of the rooms are left as they would have been in Osgood’s daughter’s time.

Also on the ground floor is The Sawyer Gallery. The exhibition when we visited was by Pamela Tait and Erland Tait who are visual artists from The Black Isle and the Highlands respectively. Pamela’s work is in watercolour and monoprints.

We then walked around the forest and saw many different trees including eucalyptus

tree ferns from Tasmania

and Californian Redwoods.

On 30 January 2022, Storm Corrie with 90mph winds, felled 60 trees and destroyed 90 large shrubs. Work is still going on to deal with this. There is a jetty from which boat trips are run.

It had begun to rain so we walked back to the café to top up the caffeine levels and then it was time to check into our campsite which was just down the road. Before we had some quite torrential rain, I looked at the view across Loch Ewe.

Round Britain: Ullapool to Gruinard Bay

After several very windy days it was great to wake up to a quiet, still morning and not to be forecast with the thunderstorms some of the rest of the UK will experience. We left Ullapool on the A835 which passes down the side of Loch Broom.

The original road was built in 1846 following the potato famine by 47 starving Highlanders who worked eight hours a day, six days a week to build what was known as one of the destitution roads: from Gairloch to Ullapool. It was funded by Dowager Lady Mackenzie of Gairloch. They received only 680g of oatmeal a day.  Today the A832 follows the destitution road and occasionally small parts of the old road are visible parallel to the current road and we saw one old bridge alongside the more modern one. It has been said that the evicted crofters were forced to use stone for the homes they had been evicted from to build the road. 

After Braemore and the end of the loch, the road follows the River Broom in Strathmore. At the junction we turned onto the A832 where some major building work was underway which looked like it might be a visitor centre for Corrieshalloch Gorge. We stopped at the gorge and looked at the view towards Loch Broom.

The Falls of Measach and the gorge had much less water in them than on a previous visit many years ago.

Continuing through the moorland we passed a hydroelectric scheme, crossed Fain Bridge and then descended into Dundonnell where a path takes you to the summit of An Teallach. The road then runs alongside Little Loch Broom

several small hamlets and a sea farm.  At Mungasdale Bay we stopped for a beach walk. Before entering Gruinard, the road crosses the Little Gruinard River which runs down to the bay. Gruinard Island belongs to the Gruinard Estate and lies two miles offshore.

In the early years of the 2nd World War, it was used as a testing ground for anthrax. Eventually in 1987 it was sprayed with formaldehyde and in 1990 was given the all-clear. In 2002 two sea eagles were seen perching on the island. The island remains uninhabited and in March 2022, there was a fire on it. We stopped at the large beach at the eastern side of the bay

Before continuing on to Laide where our campsite was situated. We were too early to check in so took the minor road up the side of Rubha Mor to Mellon Udrigle which has a fantastic beach.

There were quite a few dead jellyfish on the sand

and one interesting corroded item.

Eventually we checked in to the site at Sand in Laide which has wonderful views.

There is a ruined chapel at Sand with a surrounding graveyard. The tradition states that it was built in the 7th century by Columba or one of his followers. It was in use until the 18th century.

The burn that runs alongside it into the sea has huge amounts of garden-escape crocosmia on the banks.

Showers appeared in the early afternoon but I did manage a short beach walk in between them.

Round Britain: Clachtoll to Ullapool

After leaving Clachtoll on a grey, rainy morning we diverted off the B869 to Alchmelvich which is just a few miles down the coast. It has a very white beach. 

We picked up the newspapers in Lochinver and headed east along the A837 with Ben More and Beinn Uidhe ahead, covered in clouds. Little Assynt sits at the west end of Loch Assynt and has a nursery which sells native trees. After passing Loch Assynt Lodge the ruins of Ardvreck castle appear, sitting on a promontory in the loch.

The castle dates from around 1490 when it was owned by the MacLeod’s of Assynt. It was attacked and captured by the Mackenzies of Assynt in 1672. In 1726 they replaced it with the more modern Calda House which now lies in ruin nearby. It became known as the White House around 1730 because it had been painted white and had 14 bedrooms.  It was burned down in 1737. We would have walked out to the castle but it was raining. The road runs down the side of Loch Assynt and through Inchnadamph. At the Ledmore junction we took the A835 towards Ullapool. After passing through Elphin, a viewpoint at Knockan had a view towards Suilven with its summit in the clouds. 

At Drumrunie we took a diversion to Achiltibuie. I had hoped to visit the Hydroponic Garden there but it was closed, presumably because it was Sunday. There are views over to the Summer Isles.

Despite the summit being covered in cloud there were plenty of cars parked in the Stac Pollaidh car park whose owners were presumably climbing it or walking around the circular path which was constructed by The John Muir Trust. Back on the A835 we entered Wester Ross, got to Ullapool and found the campsite which lies on the point overlooking Loch Broom. The Rhue Lighthouse is in the distance and only visible in some lights. The last time I was in Ullapool was many years ago when we took the ferry from here to visit some friends who lived in Stornoway on Lewis.  The town was established in 1788 by the British Fisheries Association and built on a grid system. The afternoon was quite warm so we sat outside the Arch Inn with a cold beer and a view up Loch Broom.

The following morning, I saw the first ferry of the week come down the loch.

A little later on it was loading up for the return trip.

We walked past the harbour

and then back through town, visiting the local bookshops and picking up supplies. The village clock stands in Quay Street and is said to be the most-photographed clock in the Highlands but I did not bother. After lunch the morning rain had disappeared and I had a sunny walk on the beach.

In the evening I watched the sun go down.

Round Britain: Scourie to Clachtoll

We left Edinburgh on a very misty morning to recommence our tour of the coast at Scourie where we finished in late April. After we stopped at Pitlochry for coffee, the sun and blue sky appeared. We had lunch at a viewpoint near Easter Fearn which had good views over the Dornoch Firth.

Eventually we arrived in Scourie and settled into the campsite. I had a walk around the bay and the harbour.

Later in the evening I watched the sun go down.

The next morning, we continued down the A894 past several small lochs and Lower Badcall where there was a fish farm. There was a viewpoint looking towards Assynt.

The road continued downhill to Kylesku Bridge.

A side road runs past the houses, the fishing pier and ends at the slipway.

There are views of the Assynt Mountains.

The name Assynt is derived from a Norse word meaning ‘rocky ridge’. The Vikings ruled here over 1,000 years ago. Most of the place names however, are derived from Gaelic. Near Unapool was a good view of the rock strata across the water. The area is part of a Geo Park.

Shortly afterwards we diverted onto the B869 which is a windy single-track road into Northern Assynt. The first village we came to was Drumbeg which had views over Eddrachills Bay

and a sight often seen in Scotland, an abandoned croft.

Most of this part of Assynt is owned by the Assynt Crofters Trust who bought 21,000 acres of the North Assynt Estate in 1993. They own the fishing rights (and sell permits) and have undertaken conservation projects near Achmelvich. They also run a Hydroelectricity project. Past Drumbeg we took the minor road to Stoer Head lighthouse.

Cattle we grazing around it

and there were views from the headland.

Back on the B869 we passed through Clashnessie and then arrived at our base for two nights: Clachtoll Beach Campsite.  Clachtoll is a crofting township and many years ago sheep outnumbered people by 25:1. The campsite is family-run and they have free range chickens next to the site with sheep grazing nearby. The beach is a short walk down a track with a couple of paths down to the sand. I went down on our first morning when it was quiet and enjoyed a wander. The rock at the end of the headland below is known as ‘The Spilt Rock’.

I did some beach combing around the boating pier where I found some small shells and pieces of sea glass to add to my collections.

A fish and chip trailer arrives on many evenings so we treated ourselves to that on our last night. Afterwards I had another beach walk during the half hour before sunset.

The next morning we left to continue our journey.

Elgin, Findhorn and Inverness

On our way to spend a couple of nights in our van in Findhorn, we stopped in Elgin to stay in a B&B recommended by some friends. South of the A9 before we diverted up Speyside, we passed Glen Feshie which sits on the side of the Cairngorm Massif. I had recently read an article about 200 people from there who emigrated to Canada in the early 1830s and established a town called Badenoch on the shores of Lake Ontario. They cleared the heavily forested land and threatened the livelihood of the local indigenous people, the Mississaugas, a nomadic people whose traditional migratory routes were cut off. The immigrant community grew with additional English and German settlers. It is hard to believe that people who had grown up with the consequences of the clearances in Scotland could do this to the local people.

After settling into our accommodation in Elgin, we had a meal in a restaurant in a close off the High Street. Our host told us that Elgin was initially a network of narrow streets until the Victorians created the High Street and built St Giles’s church. The map shows the remains of a castle and several old wells. The following morning, we awoke to blue skies and sunshine and set out to explore the Cathedral ruins and the nearby Biblical Garden. The first cathedral was constructed in 1224.

The Biblical Garden is part laid out in the shape of a Celtic Cross

and also has statues of biblical characters with a note relating to their section of the bible.

There is also a space where you can sit and eat a picnic.

Leaving Elgin on the A941 we saw that like many towns in East Lothian, lots of new houses are being built on the outskirts. By the time we stopped for a coffee in Lossiemouth it had started to cloud over.

Heading west along the coast we passed RAF Lossiemouth, Hopeman, Roseisle Maltings and Kinross Airfield where we turned into the road to Findhorn. The Aire is situated on the Findhorn Bay Local Nature Reserve. 

The Findhorn River is 60 miles long. Its source is in the Am Monadh Liath mountains and it runs down to the Moray coast where it reaches the sea at the village of Findhorn.  Thomas Henderson wrote a book The Findhorn’ published in 1932. He describes the village of Findhorn as ‘now but a holiday resort of a charmingly primitive kind’. The Culbin Estate is near Findhorn. In the 17th century it was a prosperous farm protected from wind by the dunes. It lay on a low peninsula in the bay. In November 1694 a huge storm flooded Findhorn.  The people had to escape and the sea completely covered the Culbin Estate. 16 farms, land, the lairds house and all the workers houses were completely destroyed. A new river course to the sea had opened.  The Culbin forest is across the water from Findhorn.

The village was once a trading port. The local lairds were co-partners. They sold and shipped out their timber, salmon, herring and cod and imported luxuries. Thomas Henderson lists a selection of cargo ordered from Holland in 1649: soap, dyeing materials e.g., Indigo, raisins, currants, figs, prunes, ginger, sugar, aniseed, black pepper, wine, tobacco and more.

We were close to the beach and there are steps up the dunes for access.

There are some stones on the beach but not as many as at Spey Bay.

I did several beach walks on the first day.

On our second morning we had a coffee at the Bakehouse Market and then walked via the marina and the beach to the Aire.

In the afternoon we visited the Ice House which covers the local history of salmon fishing which was the main industry until 1987.

The main Heritage Centre was closed.

That evening I watched the sun go down on the beach.

On our way back home, we diverted to Inverness to visit some friends and had a walk alongside the River Ness.

Ballyrobert Gardens

Ballyrobert Garden is close to Ballyclare in County Antrim, Northern Island. It Is a family run affair, open to visitors and a Royal Horticultural Society Partner Garden which the owners try to blend into the local surroundings, both horticulturally and culturally. They cite influences on the garden design and philosophy from Vita Sackville West, Christopher Lloyd and Irish-born William Robinson, author of The Wild Garden and others.

The garden contains an extensive collection of plant varieties; over 4000 at last count.

It began as a small farm around 300 years ago and existed in that form until the present owners came along in 1994 and started to dig beds and add trees. Then it became a garden, a nursery, and a small farm. The site was quite rich in wildlife and had a bit of history. After a lot of thought they planned to garden in a way to fit the local landscape being as careful as possible to blend their love of gardening with the rich built and natural history of the site. The entrance to the property in 1994 consisted of a nondescript tubular gate. A search of the local area soon revealed what a traditional entrance ought to look like and so they copied the design for the pillars and the gate.

We began our walk around along the woodland walk

where autumn crocuses were beginning to emerge.

And some fungi in the grass.

The lake was very dry and empty of water after the recent hot, dry weather.

In normal times dragonflies, reed buntings and wagtails can be seen there. There are several bridges across the streams in the garden and this stone one has nest boxes built into it.

The station lawn has its name because there once was a station across the road. The gate from the front garden leads through to it.

The old hay shed is now reception and it and the other buildings are close to the front garden.

Behind the buildings is the nursery

which grows plants which they sell.

I was interested to see for the first time, discounted mis-labelled plants.

There are many wonderful plants in the garden and although it was a little too windy for macro photography, I did manage to catch a couple of insects on some of the flowers.

The rowan trees had ripe berries on them.

It has been suggested that the warmer weather due to climate change might bring autumn colours and leaf drop sooner. We had a coffee in the self-service cafe before we left. I was delighted to see one sculpture amongst the foliage.

In another area an earthenware pot sat beside some of the trees and plants.

It would be interesting to return in different seasons.

Tantallon Castle

Tantallon Castle is only a few miles from our home in North Berwick. You can even see North Berwick Law from it.

It was the headquarters of the Douglas family. William Duke of Douglas built the castle in the 1350s and they remained occupants until the 16th century when Archibald Douglas was charged with treason. It then passed to the Earldom of Angus.

The outer gate used to have double wooden doors which by the 1500s was the main route into the castle

and the Tower built in 1520s.  

Tantallon was besieged three times:

  • By James IV in 1491
  • James V in 1528
  • Oliver Cromwell in 1651 who also captured nearby Dirleton Castle as well.

The castle was abandoned after this last attack. The Dalrymples bought it as a romantic ruin in 1699. It was taken over by the ministry of works in 1924. The castle is now under the care of Historic Scotland. At the moment access is only to the outside grounds. During the pandemic a backlog of safety inspections and work compiled and is now being carried out. Until this is complete there is not access to the inside of many buildings. We wandered around the outside which gives views to the bays on either side and to the Bass Rock.

The Doocot sits in the grounds and used to house thousands of pigeons to provide meat and eggs to the residents. The birds entered via the roof and the door was kept locked to prevent poachers gaining access.

The grounds are spacious

and there are picnic tables near the entrance. It is only a short distance from the Drift Cafe as well.