Explore the Highlands of Scotland with Matthew Brace.
The drive to the Ardnamurchan peninsula in the western highlands of Scotland is a ripper. North of Glasgow, the road skirts the western shoreline of Loch Lomond, follows the River Falloch to Crainlarich, climbs up on to the brooding and windswept Rannoch Moor and plunges down the other side between the ominous, towering crags of Glencoe.
It is only when you are taking a breather on the Corran-Ardgour car ferry across Loch Linhe (all of ten minutes) that the rugged, dramatic scenery eases and is replaced by low-lying hills covered in heather and bracken, tranquil beaches and an altogether gentler landscape. The serenity feels like a reward for having made it through the rough and inhospitable moors.
The ferry lands next to a whitewashed pub and a small beach, from where it is a delightful drive along Loch Linhe and then Loch Sunart and eventually to the Ardnamurchan Point Lighthouse.
But don’t shoot through and get to the lighthouse in one day; instead get settled in your accommodation. For die-hard romantics there is one obvious choice: Stag Cottage in wonderful Glenhurich.
From the village of Strontian, a narrow, paved hill-pass leads over a summit and into Glenhurich. There are scores of remote glens in the western highlands but few that have such easy access or are blessed with such a combination of natural wonders. There is a shimmering lake (Loch Doilet), swathes of sweet-scented forests to explore, populations of rare red squirrels and even rarer pine martens, and even the occasional sea eagle soaring overhead.
Stag Cottage is one of only two houses near the eastern shores of Loch Doilet meaning privacy is guaranteed. It was built in the late 19th Century for the local estate gamekeeper, with a low-set roof and thick stone walls for warmth. The current owners completely refurbished and redesigned the place introducing comfortable armchairs and beds, subtle tartan fabric throws, and fitting an excellent country kitchen. They did such a good job of it that the place has appeared in glossy interiors magazines.
The result is a charming and cosy retreat in – well – the middle of nowhere, really. Mobile phone reception only kicks in if you drive back up the hill-pass to the summit but there is a landline phone for emergencies. There’s no internet so guests spend their leisure time reading books in front of the blazing log fire, sipping a good single malt and planning the next day’s hike.
The trip to Ardnamurchan Point is on narrow, winding roads that cannot be hurried, so you’ll need to set aside some time. It’s also worth stopping at quiet bays along the shore of Loch Sunart to try to spot otters frolicking among the seaweedy shallows.
The point is known as the westernmost tip of the British mainland but my wife, being a geographer herself and a stickler for accuracy, discovered that, in fact, a spit of land just south of the lighthouse called Mòr is in fact the most westerly point, and that requires a short but very pleasant stroll past some spotless, white beaches and some not-quite-so-clean sheep.
Glenhurich is also very well placed for day-trips to Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain (1,344m), which is easily climbable in a day, and to the wonderful Isle of Mull with it secret coves and windswept vistas.
If you up early enough and you time the ferries correctly you’ll be able to drive across Mull and get on to Iona, the magical holy island which has drawn saints and pilgrims for centuries and which is the final resting place for at least six Scottish kings, including Macbeth. You’ll need to catch two ferries on the way there (Lochaline to Fishnish and then Mull to Iona) and then retrace your steps.
A less strenuous day can be enjoyed exploring the narrow lanes bordering the flat floodplain where Loch Shiel drains into the river of the same name near the small village of Acharacle, and meanders towards the Atlantic Ocean.
For the most relaxing day of all, do not even leave Stag Cottage; instead, put your feet up and watch a simply fabulous array of wildlife. In the space of one evening on my last visit I saw a wide variety of birds (including crossbills and goldcrests), pine martens gambolling across the lawn and munching down the peanuts we left out for them, and a stocky wildcat skulking through the long grass.
Glenhurich has one of the last surviving populations of pine martens, a species which is in trouble in the UK. It is similar to a weasel but more handsome, more orange in colour than a mink, and it is thriving in the remote glen. Nightly they come hopping between the pines to play on the emerald lawn.
If asked to describe a quintessentially Scottish highland experience I would be hard-pushed to think of better combination that eating haggis in Stag Cottage’s country kitchen, followed by sipping an Ardmore single malt (from Mull) in front of a crackling log fire, and then rugging up and walking outside to watch the pine martens’ coats glistening as they play in the golden light of a 9pm May sunset.
Stag Cottage, Glenhurich, web: www.glenhurich.co.uk, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, tel: +44 (0)1773 826 392 or mobile +44 (0)7932 687 967.
You’re in the middle of nowhere so don’t expect gourmet restaurants at the end of the glen. This is a self-catering trip, so you’ll need to plan ahead and shop before you set out. The nearest supermarkets are in the town of Fort William and that’s also the best place to buy local fish – oddly enough, getting hold of fish in this fishing paradise is no mean feat. The only option apart from catching some yourself, is a mobile fish-shop that comes to the tiny village of Acharacle (near the Loch Shiel Garage) once a week.
The cute pine martens hopping and scampering across the cottage’s lawn, up and down the pine trees and onto the window ledge in the evenings.
Ardnamurchan Point, the most westerly tip of mainland Europe. If the weather’s good, the views are spectacular, west to the Hebridean Island of Coll and north to the wonderfully named isles of Eigg, Muck and Rum. On the drive to and from the point, watch out for golden eagles soaring on the thermals.
Couples Will Love
The cosiness of the cottage, the peace and quiet of the glen and the proximity to such natural beauty and rare wildlife.
If you want to avoid Heathrow and land in the UK closer to your ultimate destination, think about flying to the UK via a European hub such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen or Helsinki, and then into Glasgow or Edinburgh. Glenhurich is approximately a 4- or 5-hour leisurely drive from either airport (from Manchester it’s more like 7-8 hours). You’ll need to factor in the times of the Corran-Ardgour car ferry across Loch Linhe. Stag Cottage’s helpful owners, Liz and Richard Hallam, will give clear directions via email.