Helen Ochyra loves Scotland, but didn't really know the country until she spent three months there writing her book, Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes. Here are her hidden (and a few not-so-hidden) highlights..
I love Scotland. But before I wrote my book, Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes, I really didn’t know the place. The regular short trips I took there for my work as a travel journalist gave me glimpses, but I never felt like I could really get to the heart of what I found so magical about the country immediately to my north.
When my mum died suddenly in 2016, I knew that I couldn’t put off travelling around Scotland any longer. So I packed up the car, headed north from London, and spent three months travelling around the country. In my time there I discovered dozens of wonderful places, but these 11 stand out when I look back at my journey.
Sitting largely forgotten on a country road just outside Berwick-upon-Tweed, this sturdy stone and wrought iron construction was the longest iron suspension bridge in the world when it was built in 1820.
I found it on the first night of my trip, vaulting across the calm waters of the River Tweed, surrounded by nettles and purple flowers. There was nobody else in sight and I posed entirely alone next to the Welcome to Scotland sign, quietly thrilled to be crossing the border.
Ok, so this one is known to a lot of people – but all the better, because its properly defined path, and the fact that you’re almost certain to have company at its summit, makes it a safe small hill to tackle alone.
It also has one of the best effort-to-reward ratios of any hill in Scotland – i.e. you won’t bust a gut getting up here, but you will get a cracker of a view, along almost the full length of Loch Katrine. The only man-made thing in sight from up here is, well, man.
When I checked into Tannochbrae Guest House in Dufftown, owner James directed me towards the snug whisky bar tucked away out the back and I settled in for a proper blether about all things whisky.
There are more than 300 different single malts lining the walls here, colour-coded into different prices and offering the chance to explore Speyside without even leaving your armchair.
The North Coast 500 touring route snakes through Berriedale and right past the front door of a cute stone cottage now doing a roaring trade as the River Bothy tearoom. Cakes and biscuits packed the counter when I called in – everything from cheesecakes and eclairs to shortbread and scones.
I let myself feast because I knew I was about to tackle the Whaligoe Steps, some 30km up the coast. This plunging staircase fashioned from Caithness stone leads down to an old fishing harbour and was the toughest descent (and ascent) I tackled on my trip, munros included.
Cocoa Mountain is a renowned chocoIatier and I popped into its cafe in Durness for a quick cuppa but ended up languishing in sugary oblivion all afternoon, gradually smearing chocolate across my face, the napkins, my phone.
The hot chocolate here comes loaded with cream and drizzled with melted milk and white chocolate, plus two chocolates of your choice on the side. That won’t be nearly enough though, what with champagne truffles, strawberry with black pepper, peppermint fondants, whisky chocolates, Turkish delight...
Forget the bridge, the best way to get over the sea to Skye is on the Glenachulish, the only remaining manually operated turntable ferry in the world. Most of its operation seems to consist of untying and tying the ropes either side of its 600-metre-odd crossing and pushing the turntable around to allow cars to board.
It’s so narrow here that cattle used to swim across. You’ll arrive at Kylerhea, where the road leads on into the island like a rollercoaster in tarmac.
When you get to Skye, head west as far as you can go. This would be Neist Point, where an undulating concrete path about a mile long leads out along a knobbly hammerhead of land to a squat yellow and white lighthouse.
It’s often under leaden skies and on the day I strode out here I felt like I was walking in a watercolour, the sky all brushstrokes in every shade of grey from off-white to pewter. The Outer Hebrides formed dark lumps on the horizon and I played guess the island before looking back the other way to find towering cliffs marked with nameless waterfalls, the water catching every glimmer of sunshine.
Scotland was forged by volcanoes and on Mull a fairly straightforward walk takes you up to the top of ‘S Airde Beinn and around the rim of the loch at its crater.
Parking is in a wee layby (on the B8073 just outside Tobermory), so you’ve got a good chance of getting this one to yourself as well. The path is boggy but not too steep and you won’t glimpse the lake until you reach the very top – one of Scotland’s little-known big reveals.
There are so many indescribably scenic white-sand beaches in Scotland, and especially in the Outer Hebrides, that the best bet is always just to ask the locals where’s good nearby. Most often they’ll underplay it, suggesting you might wander this way or that to such and such a strip of sand, only for you to find a beach straight out of a Caribbean holiday ad.
At the end of my stay at Borvemor Cottages, the owner Scott suggested I check out the beach out the back. This turned out to be Traigh Mhor ('big beach' in Gaelic), with its glorious powdery sands arcing off in both directions – and not another soul in sight.
The Polochar is just the sort of inn you want to find at the end of a long day’s drive. The sort that serves simple, local food and offers up the chance to chat with locals at the bar.
This is exactly what happened on my night here, when dinner was a dish of scallops that were as big as the top of my glass (which was pint-sized) and a local crofter called Roddy kept me entertained with stories of farming and Whisky Galore (the infamous, whisky-laden ship that sank on neighbouring Eriskay) until the wee hours.
The West Harris community owns Talla Na Mara, a super-modern centre which is a hub for local creative industries, a space for visual and performance arts and a meeting place for community events. It’s also a restaurant where my husband Douglas and I found simple seafood dishes and just about the best sunset we’ve ever seen.
Nature insisted us out onto the terrace as a pink the colour of candy floss spread across the sky. The lightest clouds took on the lightest colour while the thicker ones glowed purple, creating a marbled sunset above the white sands of Niseaboist Beach. We still end every day with that sunset, because the photograph Douglas took of it hangs in pride of place on our living room wall. Our little piece of Scotland.
Helen Ochyra is a travel writer and author. Her first book, Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes, follows her three-month trip around Scotland in the wake of her mother’s sudden death and uncovers stories about the history, geography and people of this magical country.Buy The Book
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