Next morning we set off along the Northern Scottish coastline, admiring the attractive white beaches. Inland we enjoyed the wild countryside, rocky hills covered in brown heather and scrubby trees . We picked some white heather, said to be lucky, so we closed our eyes and made a wish.
There are lots of marshes with mounds of spagnum moss and fast flowing clear streams, with distant glimpses of snowy peaks. Morag told us there is more peat in these boglands than anywhere else, except the steppes of Russia. Roads and railways were built using brushwood to float them over these moors.
We were told that Highland sheep can eat almost anything but the tough grasses quickly wear away their teeth so their life is short. Crofters used the land to extract peat but little grows without extra fertilizer such as seaweed. This is Sutherland country, part of the land subject to Highland Clearances. It used to be dubbed Destitution Road due to the poverty of those driven from their ancestral land. Between 1792 and 1815, cottages were burnt to the ground and families callously driven away to Betty Hill village, built for the purpose, near the coast.
In 1836 crop failure had brought hunger to the British Isles and famine to the Highlands. Bad weather had ruined peat stocks and people burnt the thin squares of turf on their roofs to keep warm. Ironically, some of the crofters who left in purpose-built Croft ships for Carolina and the Eastern states of the USA, dispossessed Indians of their lands!
That night we stayed at the Caledonian Hotel. The waiter at dinner had limited English so I profited from the occasion by speaking French. We hadn’t seen much fruit for days so were delighted to find a Fruit Basket on the menu.
Marjorie chose an apple, orange, some grapes and strawberries. I enjoyed some strawberries and grapes. About to reach for an apple, a thought occurred to me. I giggled. ‘Wonder if this fruit is all for us – or are we meant to take a selection?’ At that moment a hand appeared and snatched away the almost denuded basket. It may have seemed a lot to them but we were used to enjoying that amount every day.
Next morning we set off in bright sunshine day, looking forward to an excursion at Loch Broom .By the time we reached Ullapool that afternoon, the rain was pelting down. We stepped out at an attractive white building, delighted to be piped inside our hotel by a Scottie in full kilt, elaborate ruff at his throat . What a delight to warm our hands in front of a dancing log fire. I treated my sore throat to another Cointreau on ice and soon others tried the same remedy.
Umbrellas aloft, we set off on the cruise. There were few seals or other animals on view – clearly, they were too intelligent to be out in that sort of weather. We enjoyed lively conversation, admired craggy cliffs with yellow, orange and green moss, and spotted seagulls nesting in high crevices. Blocks of stone were in the process of splitting apart, lying at the water’s edge in great tumbles.
At Oban we enjoyed one of our favorite stops, the Inverewe gardens, established in the 1800s. Gardeners worked hard to transform the poor soil, using sea weed and other mulch . Now plants and trees are grown from all over the world, including Australian Eucalyptus There are said to be 2500 exotic plants and flowers. We trudged slippery paths and dodged dripping vegetation, wishing there was sunshine to allow us to appreciate the wonderful water-gardens. A celebrated collection of Rhododendrons, included a rare white perfumed specimen.
One of the group, weighing at least 20 stone, needed a wheel-chair for the visit and had insisted on coming, despite the rain. Vince, being young and strong, was given the task of pushing her around in the wet and squelchy conditions.. At times he wouldn’t have made it if one of us hadn’t given him an added push. Once he almost tipped her out which some whispered would have served her right. Should people be allowed on these excursions when they aren’t capable of managing the rough terrain on their own?Was it fair for others to have their own holidays and health put in jeopardy?
On the way to Fort William we admired the way our driver managed the twisting and difficult roads in the wet conditions. Despite the fog we glimpsed Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. Along the tree-lined shores of Loch Ness the rain eased. Everyone had cameras at the ready but Nessie didn’t favor us with a glimpse.
Mist clung to the craggy cliffs at Glencoe. In the drizzle and cold it was easy to imagine the full horror of that terrible night of 13 February 1692 when the Campbells betrayed the house of MacDonald and the sacred trust of hospitality was forever tarnished, people slaughtered without mercy or left to die in the snow, including women and children .